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The Race for Iran

Can the United States Think Strategically About Iran, China, and the Deepening Ties Between the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia?

One of the many satisfying aspects of Flynt’s appointment as a professor of international affairs and law at Penn State is his service on the faculty editorial board for the new Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, published jointly by Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law (DSL) and School of International Affairs (SIA).  As its name suggests, the Journal focuses on subjects that lie at the intersection of law (international or national) and international relations.  In keeping with the traditional law review model, Flynt’s wonderful colleague, Executive Editor (and assistant dean at DSL and SIA) Amy Gaudion oversees a talented batch of student editors from both schools who produce each issue.

The newest (second) issue of the Journal (vol. 1, no. 2) is out, see here.  It includes our most recent article, “The Balance of Power, Public Goods, and the Lost Art of Grand Strategy:  American Policy Toward the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia in the 21st Century”; for a pdf version, click here.  It also includes pieces by (among others) Harold James, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ronald Deibert, and P.J. Crowley.  The issue grew out of a series of presentations that the Journal sponsored over the course of the last academic year around the theme of America’s emerging national security narrative.

Our article seeks to explore the roots of the worsening crisis in American foreign policy, of which America’s dysfunctional policy toward Iran is an especially salient manifestation.  As we write,

While no single factor explains the relative decline of American standing and influence in world affairs, one of the most important is the failure of American political and policy elites to define clear, reality-based goals and to relate the diplomatic, economic, and military means at Washington’s disposal to realizing them soberly and efficaciously.  Defining such ends and relating the full range of foreign policy tools to their achievement is the essence of what is known among students of international relations and national security practitioners as ‘grand strategy.’  Questions of grand strategy are becoming an increasingly important element in America’s emerging national security narrative—because of accumulating policy failures, relative economic decline, and the rise of new power centers in various regional and international arenas.”

To explore what is wrong with contemporary American grand strategy and what it would take to put that strategy on a sounder course, our article evaluates “Washington’s posture toward two regions where the effectiveness of American policy will largely determine the United States’ standing as a great power in the 21st century:  the Middle East (with a focus on the Persian Gulf) and rising Asia (with a focus on China).”  As we explain,

Fundamental flaws in America’s stance vis-à-vis these critical areas have contributed much to the erosion of the United States’ strategic standingOver time, deficiencies in policy toward each of them have become synergistic with deficiencies in policy toward the otherRecovering a capacity for sound grand strategy will require a thoroughgoing recasting of American policy toward both—and a more nuanced appreciation of the interrelationship between these vital parts of the world for U.S. interests.”

We have come more and more to appreciate that recasting American policy in this way must necessarily be preceded by a kind of “cultural revolution” in the United States.  Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has been increasingly driven by a grand strategic model—we call it the “transformation model” in our article—in which “the United States seeks not to manage distributions of power but to transcend them by becoming a hegemon, in key regions of the world and globally.”  Such a commitment to hegemony—an assertion of military, economic, and ideological dominance that aims to micromanage political outcomes in far-flung parts of the world and to remake, or at least to subordinate, vital regions in accordance with American preferences—is deeply problematic, strategically as well as morally.

Strategically, the transformation model rejects a lesson that balance of power theorists, foreign policy realists, and astute students of international history all know:

“While hegemony seems nice in theory, in the real world it is unattainable; not even a state as powerful as the United States coming out of the Cold War can achieve it.  Pursuing hegemony is not just quixotic; it is counter-productive for a great power’s strategic position, dissipating resources…and sparking resistance from others.  Pursuing hegemony ends up making you weaker.  This is the critical factor that has undermined the effectiveness of American foreign policy over the last 20 years or so.”

Notwithstanding such a dismal record, the commitment to hegemony remains deeply rooted in American strategic and political culture.  It is grounded in venerated notions of American exceptionalism and of the United States as “the indispensable nation.”  It is driven by a teleological view of history reflecting a culturally-conditioned belief in “progress”—the inevitable triumph of liberal, secular modernism over other ways of looking at human and social existence—and a conviction that, ultimately, everyone wants to be “just like us.”

Of course, one can argue that there are resources available in American political culture to push back against the embrace of hegemonic foreign policy.  For all that the United States has come, over the course of its history, to embody an ideology of liberal universalism, many of its founders (e.g., James Madison) and early leaders could well be described as hard-core “republican (small ‘r’) realists,” who understood that imperial ambitions are bound to undermine liberty at home and national strength abroad.  But, for a long time, the relative balance of cultural resources has been tilted ever more in favor of liberal hegemony as the reigning paradigm for American foreign policy.

Today, this is most urgently felt with regard to U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Pushing back against that is our primary task for the coming year—first and foremost, through our forthcoming book, Going to Tehran:  Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will be published just eight days into 2013.

Best wishes to all for a Happy New Year.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


The Real Obstacles to Successful Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran Lie in Washington, Not Tehran

We are just back from another visit to the Islamic Republic and see even more clearly that the real obstacles to successful nuclear diplomacy with Iran lie in Washington, not Tehran.  Prior to our visit, we outlined several of the reasons for this in an extended interview on Ian Masters’ Background Briefing about our forthcoming Going to Tehran; click here to listen.

We open by taking issue with the conventional wisdom that the upcoming talks between the P5+1 and Iran will be the “last chance” to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran before the Islamic Republic gears up for its presidential election next year.  On this point, Flynt notes that the only reason nuclear talks over the next few months would be a “last chance” is

“because of arbitrary deadlines and frameworks that the United States and some of its partners have imposed on these negotiations.  In the end, the Iranian nuclear problem is actually quite simple:  if the United States was prepared to accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium, under safeguards, on its own territory, you could have a deal in fairly short order…You could probably get limits on Iran’s 20-percent enrichment, you could get much more intrusive verification on its nuclear activities.  But you would have to accept the Islamic Republic as kind of a normal state, with legitimate interests and rights.”

The Obama administration, of course, has shown no willingness to approach nuclear talks with Iran on such a basis.  Instead, it has imposed the arbitrary deadlines and frameworks highlighted by Flynt.  The dysfunctionality of this approach is reinforced by deeply flawed—and self-deluding—assessments of Iranian decision-making.  As Hillary explains,

“The anxiety here, or the urgency, is because it’s put out that, if we don’t do something now, if we don’t try to make a deal now, the Iranian elections will come…and that will somehow derail any possibility for talks.  This is something that, time and time again, permeates the American debate—that somehow the problem with negotiating with Iran is in Iran, is in Tehran…It’s either the “mad mullahs” are so crazy, so irrational that we can’t count on them to negotiate like a rational state, or various things are going to come up in their calendar, particularly elections (which in itself should make us question this idea that there are “mad mullahs” there)…

The whole debate here is that something is wrong in Iran, something is wrong in Tehran that is going to derail talks.  There’s never any examination of what drives American politics to demonize countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran…The issue is something here; it’s about domestic politics here.

If President Obama cannot get a negotiation going with the Iranians in the next few months, he has a problem domestically here, because domestic constituencies here—and the Israeli government—will say, ‘Time is upYou’ve had enough time.  We can’t let the Iranians continue to progress in their nuclear programYou have to take even more coercive action, either more coercive sanctions or military action.’  It’s a domestic problem here.  It’s not because of something going on in the decision-making or some irrational craziness among Iranian clerics or Iranian lay leaders.

On Israel’s role—and its motives for constantly pushing an alarmist view of the Islamic Republic, Flynt says,

“The Israelis are perpetually concerned—I think that their concern is exaggerated—but they are perpetually concerned that the Obama administration is going to try, in a serious way, to pursue a deal.  Because the Israelis know that the only kind of deal you could really get out of this process that would have any meaning for both sides would be a deal that actually recognized Iran’s right to enrich—again, under safeguards, not building a nuclear weapon, but they do have a right to enrichThat’s what the Israelis are out to stop.   They do not want the United States, other Western powers, to accept this basic fact of international law and international life—that the Iranians have this right, and they are not going to be bullied into giving it up.

This is something that I think the United States really has to come to terms with.  For its own interests, it needs to get a nuclear deal with Iran; it needs to start realigning its relations with this important country in the Middle East.  And we need to be able to separate Israeli preferences—that have more to do with [Israel’s] own commitment to military dominance in the Middle East—and Israeli security.  Iran enriching uranium under safeguards doesn’t affect Israeli security at all.  But we need to be able to sort out what our real interests are.”

Against the stereotypes of Iranian “irrationality” and internal political divisions that render effective diplomatic engagement with Tehran impossible, Hillary outlines some important realities about the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and national security strategy:

There is consensus [among Iranian policymakers] that Iran should and can engage with almost any country in the world, if [engagement] is to protect its own interests.  Where it draws the line is anywhere that Iran would be asked to or expected to cede any of its sovereign rights.  Iran is not going to agree to that kind of negotiation…In terms of what Iran should push for, what kind of deal Iran could make in the end, there is certainly discussion and debate—vociferous debate—in Iran about those kinds of tactics.  But the strategy—that Iran is a strong country, that it can and should negotiate and deal with other countries in its own interests—is something that is really put forward by the Supreme Leader, by Ayatollah Khamenei.  And it’s something, I think, that every senior official follows…

You hear in Washington, especially, periodic discussion…some days it’s Ahmadinejad is the hardliner and he would never be able to deal with the United States.  And then someone points out, ‘Well, he actually wrote a 20-page letter to Bush.  He actually wrote a congratulatory letter to President Obama on his first election.’  Then people say, ‘Well, maybe the issue is really the speaker of the parliament, or maybe it’s this person or that person.’  There’s a constant attempt in the United States, particularly in Washington, to read the tea leaves, as if [the Islamic Republic is] a very opaque system.  These kinds of critics analogize it to the Soviet system.

But it’s not really opaque.  If you listen, read, talk to [Iranian] officials, talk to a range of people in their political class, on their political spectrum, and take what they have to say seriously…you can really understand their strategyYou can understand where they’re coming from, and their strategic determination to be a very strong, independent countryThe problem, I think, on our side—why we try always to see where there’s some daylight, where this person is competing with that person—is that we’re very reluctant to accept that Iran could be a strong, independent, not secular, not liberal, but still legitimate political entity

We document rather exhaustively in our book the number of times that the Iranians have engaged with the United States…[In one of these episodes, I] worked personally with them as an official in the State Department and in the White House, with a small team of American officials, to deal with Afghanistan and the problem we were facing there after 9/11 with Al-Qa’ida…[The Iranians] were not paralyzed by internal conflict.  The internal conflict was here.  It’s the opposition that I had when I was in the White House, from my superiors or people who worked for Vice President Cheney, trying to undermine what Ryan Crocker and I were trying to do with the Iranians.”

Looking ahead, Flynt underscores that, notwithstanding recurrent debate among American political and policy elites over Tehran’s willingness to talk directly, on a bilateral basis, with Washington, “the Iranian position on dealing with the United States has been pretty clear and consistent for a long time, for years.  They are open to improved relations, they are open to dialogue and diplomacy to facilitate serious improvement in relations.  But they want to know, upfront at this point, that the United States is really prepared to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests.  And they want to know upfront that the United States is really serious about realigning relations with them.

They are not interested in having negotiations just for the sake of having negotiations.  They are not interested in having negotiations if they think that the United States is just going to keep piling sanctions on them.  They want to know upfront that the United States is serious.

So they will go the P-5+1 talks; they certainly are not refusing to participate in the P-5+1 process.  And if, as part of that, the United States makes it clear that it really is interested in a different sort of relationship—that it really does accept the Islamic Republic and wants to come to terms with it as an important player in the Middle East—at that point the Iranians would be very open, very receptive to bilateral dialogue.”

In the interview, we also discuss the 2003 non-paper sent to Washington by Iran via Swiss intermediaries and why incremental, step-by-step cooperation between the United States and the Islamic Republic doesn’t work to improve the overall relationship (mainly because Washington won’t allow it to do so).

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


America’s “War Party” and the Myth of Iranian “Irrationality”

Speaking with Antiwar Radio’s Scott Horton earlier this week (listen to podcast here) about our forthcoming book, see here, Flynt took on widespread stereotypes in American discourse about Shi’a Islam as a martyrdom-obsessed, death-seeking, and “irrational” culture that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran a threatening and dangerous actor on par with Hitler’s Reich.  He confessed that “I’m reaching a stage where I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when [I hear that sort of thing from] people who I don’t think know very much about Shi’a Islam, don’t know very much about Iran, haven’t spent a lot of time, I would suspect, talking about Shi’a Islam with people who believe it, live it, think about it.”  But, evoking a major theme in Going to Tehran:  Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, he rejoins,

“Just look at the historical record.  The Islamic Republic has never used weapons of mass destruction.  In its war with Iraq—when the United States, among others, was supporting Saddam Husayn in an eight-year war of aggression against the new Islamic Republic—Ayatollah Khomeini’s own military leaders came to him and said, ‘We inherited the ability to produce chemical weapons agent from the Shah.  We need to do that and weaponize it so that we can respond in kind.  We have tens of thousands of our people, soldiers and civilians, who are being killed in Iraqi chemical weapons attacks.  We need to be able to respond in kind.”  And Imam Khomeini said, ‘No, because this would violate Islamic morality, because it is haram—it is forbidden by God—to do this, and the Islamic Republic of Iran will not do this.’  Imam Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, have said repeatedly, over years, that the acquisition or use of nuclear weapons would also violate God’s law; Khamenei has said that to do it would be a ‘big sin.’  This is not the rhetoric of people who are out to bring the apocalypse down upon everyone else and themselves

The most detailed, data-rich extensive study of suicide terrorism, done by scholars at the University of Chicago and the U.S. Air War College, concluded that there has literally never been an Iranian suicide bomber…And so people like to talk about the Islamic Republic as run by these ‘mad mullahs,’ or even if the president is a layman, it’s this ‘crazy,’ ‘millenarian’ Ahmadinejad who just is waiting to get his hands on a nuke so he can turn the whole 70-plus million people in Iran into history’s first ‘suicide nation.’  And there is just absolutely no historical or even rhetorical support for that line of argument.  This is a country that, since its revolution, has basically been much, much more concerned about defending itself, defending the Iranian people, consolidating and maintaining its own independence in the face of hostile regional powers and hostile outside powers including, most notably, the United States.

Spurred by a reference to Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution,” Flynt notes,

“The first task of a revolutionary, once he or she has overthrown the incumbent regime that he’s opposing, the first task is to consolidate power.  And that was certainly the case for the Islamic Republic—and the Islamic Republic had to do this when, in fairly short order as I said, Saddam Husayn launches this eight-year-long war against it, supported by most of his regional neighbors and supported by the United States.  So they were having to consolidate power while they were also having to defend the Iranian people against this onslaught.

And then if you look at what they did, after they came out of this war in in 1988—after it’s over and their military has been very, very badly decimated in this war, as has their economy as a whole—they actually diverted significant resources away from military spending, so that they can focus on postwar reconstruction, on building up a health care system, on building up an education system for their peopleAnd if you look at the outcomes they have produced for Iranians in those areas, considering the baseline they started from, it’s really impressive what they have accomplished.

Today, the United State spends 70 times more on defense than Iran.  Saudi Arabia spends more than four times what Iran spends on defense.  Israel spends twice as much on its military as Iran does.  Iran today has basically no capability to project large amounts of conventional military force beyond its borders.  The idea that Iran is going to come across its borders and, to borrow a phrase from the U.S. Army, park it’s tanks in somebody else’s front yard, is just fantasyland

So they are no conventional military threat to their neighbors.  They do have a lot of ballistic missiles—conventionally-armed ballistic missiles—which they have said they would use in response to attacks on them.  But they are certainly not the only country in the world that makes that sort of deterrent, retaliatory threat as part of its defense posture.  And if you are concerned about those missiles not flying anywhere, I would suggest you don’t attack Iran, and those missiles aren’t going to go anywhere.”

Scott Horton raises the discomfiting prospect that facts don’t really matter where Iran is concerned—that, regardless of the facts, “there is this endless drumbeat of bad things that Iran did, and it doesn’t matter that none of them are true…In the popular narrative, Iran is a terrible danger that must at some point be dealt with; I think the war party has won on that and that means it’s just a matter of time.”  Flynt responds,

“You may be correct; I hope you’re not.  Hillary and I have written the book that Harper’s was good enough to print an excerpt from in no small part because we want to do everything we can, at least, to make sure that the war party doesn’t win.

Now, it’s a very tall order.  The war party, as you describe them—we saw what they are capable of doing, in terms of getting us to invade IraqThey can manufacture intelligence, they can create threats that aren’t there, they can link a country that they don’t like to other threats that Americans are afraid of, like Al-Qa’ida—even though there is no link between that country they don’t like and Al-Qa’idaThey can manage to pull that off.  They can tie into very powerful domestic constituencies who can put lots of pressure on Congress, lots of pressure on the mainstream media, and so onWe saw with Iraq what they are capable of doing, and you’re right—they are certainly trying to do it with Iran now.

Hillary and I saw that inside government during the run-up to the Iraq WarBasically, all of the institutions Americans count on to provide a check on that sort of thing—the Congress, the media, think tanks, public intellectuals—with some few and extremely honorable and courageous exceptions, for the most part those institutions tankedThey provided no independent check on the war party.  And Hillary and I have written this book, Going to Tehran, as I said, in no small part because, at least this time around, we want someone to be asking the hard questions and making the kinds of countervailing arguments that should have been asked, should have been made before we invaded Iraq but, to a large extent, really weren’t put forward.”

Scott and Flynt also discuss the possibilities for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.  After reviewing the 2003 Iranian non-paper passed to the United States via Swiss intermediaries, Flynt makes a broader point:

This is also part of the ‘mad mullah’ myth—that this is a regime, a government, that is either too ideologically committed to anti-Americanism or too dependent on it for its own domestic legitimacy ever to contemplate improved relations with the United States.  But, again, just look at the historical record.

The historical record is that whenever the United States has reached out to Iran and said, ‘We need your help with some problem—whether it’s American hostages in Lebanon, whether it’s getting weapons to Bosnian Muslims when U.S. law prohibited the United States from doing that, whether it’s help against Al-Qa’ida and in Afghanistan after 9/11—whenever we have reached out like that to Iran, they have tried to respond positively.  They have done much—not everything, but much—of what we’ve asked of them in those circumstances, in the hope that this would lead to an improvement in relations.  It’s never worked out, but not because the Iranians didn’t respond.  It didn’t work out because we decided to pocket their cooperation, and then cut it off.  They’ve advanced any number of proposals over the years for a more comprehensive improvement in relations, which we have pretty consistently rebuffed.

Their stated position, from Ayatollah Khamenei himself—and it’s been echoed by presidents, by foreign ministers, and by other senior officials—is if the United States is willing to accept the Iranian Revolution, to accept the Islamic Republic (the product of that revolution) as a legitimate political entity representing legitimate national interests and to deal with it on that basis, there is no barrier to improved relations between Iran and the United States—and in fact Iran would welcome improved relations on that basis.  From the Iranian perspective, it’s the United States that’s never shown itself seriously willing to proceed on that basis.  We think relations can only improve only after Iran has surrendered to every one of our demands, and then we’ll see if it’s possible, we’ll think about it then…

That’s never going to work with this political order…We tried that for twenty years after the Chinese Revolution with the People’s Republic of China, and it was an utterly stupid and counterproductive policy that, among other things, got us bogged down in Vietnam.  Fortunately, Richard Nixon [realized] that this is stupid, it’s hurting the United States; the United States needs to be able to deal with this large and important country in Asia.  I am going to accept the People’s Republic as a legitimate entity that has national interests just like we do, and we are going to see if we can’t align enough of those interests to make it possible these two countries that have been estranged from one another since the Chinese Revolution actually to have a productive relationship.  And it worked; it worked brilliantly.

That’s the kind of approach we need to take toward Iran today, toward the Islamic Republic.  It’s just like China—for twenty years, Mao and Zhou Enlai had said, ‘We’re not unremittingly and unreasonably hostile toward the United States.  If the United States is prepared to accept us, accept the revolution that we came from, accept us and deal with us as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests, there is no barrier to good relations between the United States and China.  We would welcome that.  But you’re not going to be able to bully us around, you’re not going to be able just to make demands of us, and you’re not going to be able to get us to compromise our sovereignty to accommodate your preferences.’  It took us twenty years, but we figured out how to do that” where China was concerned.

As to the prospects for productive American diplomacy toward Iran during President Obama’s second term, Flynt noted that he was “not at all optimistic.”  To be sure, the outlines of a nuclear deal are clear:

If you acknowledge Iran’s legal right to enrich uranium under safeguards on its own territory if it chooses to do so, then everything becomes possible…[But even in the talks over a possible deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) in 2009-2019] the Obama administration was never prepared to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich…It was prepared to do a kind of narrow deal that would buy it a certain amount of time  to figure out maybe what it wanted to do on these bigger issues.  But it has never been willing to say Iran has a right to enrich…

If you look at why the Obama administration rejected the deal that Brazil and Turkey brokered with Iran over this issue in May 2010, Obama administration officials, Dennis Ross, people like that have said in public, ‘Oh, we had to reject it because the first point in the deal that the Brazilians and the Turks brokered was [an acknowledgment of] Iran’s right to enrich, and we couldn’t have that’…[The administration] put terms on it, and the Brazilians and the Turks took letters that Obama had sent to the Brazilian president and the Turkish prime minister; they even showed those letters to the Iranians while they were negotiating with them, because the Iranians were saying, ‘Are you really sure the United States is going to sign off on this?’  And [the Brazilians and the Turks said, ‘Oh, yes, we have letters from the President of the United States; look.’

But it was really just a kind of cheap trick on Obama’s part.  [Administration officials] thought that if the Brazilians and the Turks insisted on the conditions in Obama’s letter, the Iranians would never agree; then, when the Brazilians and the Turks failed, they were both members of the Security Council at that time and they would both have to support a new sanctions resolution.  It was just a kind of cheap trick.  They thought…the Iranians will never say ‘yes.’  But then the Iranians said ‘yes.’  And then it’s the Obama administration that can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

Looking ahead, Flynt notes that we’ve “talked to senior administration officials just in the last couple of weeks who tell me that there is no inclination to [recognize Iran’s right to enrich]—the policy, the goal is still to get Iran to suspend uranium enrichment.”  Responding to a suggestion that Nixon was uniquely able, as a Republican with strong Cold War anti-communist credentials, to spearhead an opening to China in ways that Obama, as a Democrat, is simply not able to replicate with respect to Iran, Flynt argues,

“More important than Richard Nixon being a Republican was that Richard Nixon actually had an accurate assessment of America’s place in the world when he entered the White House, and he had really thought through what that should mean for the United States strategically.  And he understood how important it was for the United States—it was not a favor to the Chinese—how important it was to the United States to open relations with China.  And he put every ounce of political skill, Machiavellian calculation, diplomatic acumen, capacity for secrecy…all of the good and maybe not so good parts of political persona, he put all of them into this and achieved this historic breakthrough, because he knew it was strategically vital for his country.

I don’t think the main problem with Obama is that he is a Democrat.  I think the main problem is that he doesn’t really understand where the United States is in the world right now, he doesn’t really have a strategic vision for the United States, and whatever vision he does have doesn’t compel him enough, doesn’t matter enough to him that he is actually to spend and risk political capital to realize it.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Why the Obama Administration Charges the Syrian government May Be Preparing to Use Chemical Weapons…and the “Benghazi Effect”

Commenting on Obama administration claims that the Syrian government appears to be making preparations to use chemical weapons in its fight against armed rebels, Hillary noted on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story Americas last week, see here, that

“we’ve been down this road before.  We went down this road in invading Iraq on the basis of so-called evidence, that was really manufactured, that Saddam Husayn had weapons of mass destruction—that he didn’t have.  We went in to disarm him of weapons he didn’t have.  And here nobody is asking the basic question:  How do we know that chemical weapons are being mixed or moved…

We, honestly, probably have no way of knowing.  This is not something you can get at by flying a drone over these fortified bunkers, or having your satellite take pictures over a fortified bunker.  These are things that go on inside a fortified bunker.  By definition, you need to have human intelligence to tell you what’s going on.  And since we closed our embassy and left Syria, we have very little ability to get that human intelligence.  There’s a really serious question here about whether this so-called evidence of [Syria] moving chemical weapons and preparing them, whether that has any basis in fact whatsoever.”

So why is the Obama administration leaking such reports so prolifically?  In Hillary’s view,

There are three basic reasonsOne is to gain leverage over Russia and China, and potentially Iran, so that they will not be as opposed to a plan to push [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad out or collapse the Assad governmentThe second is potentially to create a pretext, whether it’s by President Obama or by others in the administration or by our so-called allies, to take some [overtly] militaristic action to intervene in Syria.  And the third is to scare Assad and his loyaliststhat the military intervention is imminent, so you better get out of town fast

It’s not a real fear that Syria is going to give chemical weapons or somehow going to lose them to Hizballah—that’s what’s being played up, to play to peoples’ concerns that are unfounded; that if Hizballah got hold of these chemical weapons—which are not candy that can just be handed off or lost down the drain—that Hizballah would use them against our ally Israel.  That’s what they are playing to here in Washington among the foreign policy elite, but that’s not a real, founded fear.”

And for all that there may be some in the Obama administration, perhaps even President Obama himself, who consider themselves reluctant to embark on direct U.S. military intervention in Syria, hyped claims about the disposition of Syrian chemical weapons can put those officials in much the same position as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell—who had a similarly “real aversion to being sucked into an invasion of Iraq”—in the run-up to the George W. Bush administration’s March 2003 invasion:  “That’s what so neat and convenient about the chemical weapons story” Hillary noted, “You can bring in some people who have that aversion, who don’t want a pretext…It’s the convenient lowest common denominator.”

So why has the Obama administration defined not just the use of chemical weapons, but perhaps even certain unspecified deployments of chemical weapons as a “red line?”  To answer that, Hillary draws a parallel with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his carton bomb at the United Nations General Assembly:

Both for the Israelis trying to stare down the Iranians, and losing, and for the United States trying to stare down two-bit Bashar al-Assad and losing, you have to constantly redraw where the red line is, to make up for the fact that you have not ousted these people from power, you have not effected regime change.

The fact is that the Obama administration has a problemMore than twenty months ago, they said that Bashar al-Assad has to go—and he has not goneSo they keep moving the red lines.  So when you ask about chemical weapons, where is the red line for it, you get into this ridiculous to and fro over how many people are killed [by conventional weapons], whether that matters, how they are killed.  And you also get into a ridiculous debate about, well, does he have the chemicals mixed, have they put them in the right canisters or not.  I mean, who even knows if this is based on science.  It’s all about…the problem that both the United States and Israel have—that they cannot face down these political orders that they don’t like.”

But, Hillary underscores, “there’s a reason we have to do it”; there’s a reason the United States, even under a reelected President Obama, feels compelled to keep putting itself in such strategically obtuse positions:

The ability of the United States to affect outcomes through the projection of military force has gone down precipitously and probably is not recoverableBut we hold on to it, desperately, because we have no soft power argument to give to Arabs, to give to Muslims, on why we should be in their countries, in their societies.”

For the same reason, the United States can’t pursue or even support real “conflict resolution” in Syria, for “that would require dealing with the Assad government, dealing with Bashar al-Assad, and not only not having ‘preconditions’ for the talks, but getting rid of this idea that we can have ‘pre-results.’  That would be real conflict resolution, and we are steadfastly opposed to that.”

Hillary also casts a skeptical eye on reports suggesting that the Obama administration may be “taking more seriously the ‘Benghazi effect’:  that when you arm, train, and fund jihadists, either directly or indirectly, as we did in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now in Syria, that you could face consequences, as serious as 9/11.  For that’s what we have in our history, [including] the assassination of [U.S. Ambassador to Libya] Stevens.”  She attributes these stories not to some genuine reconsideration of a well-established aspect of America’s Middle East policy, but to elements within the intelligence community seeking to protect themselves, to the extent possible, from

“congressional investigations over what’s going on in Benghazi, and the likelihood that we will have increased congressional investigations come January…With increased congressional scrutiny, we may find out that the very people who killed Ambassador Stevens did so with arming, training, and funding indirectly from the United States…whether it’s the Qataris, the Emiratis, the Saudis, or somebody else, the U.S. authorized it—the White House, not the CIA, the White House authorized it.”

It’s all about “who’s to blame for a disastrous policy,” not genuine strategic revision.  The United States isn’t going to give up arming rebels—even jihadists—fighting to overthrow governments it doesn’t like.  For, Hillary explains, there is “something deeply cultural, something deep in American strategic culture” that leads one generation of policymakers after another to believe

“that no matter who we arm, train, and fund, as long as they knock off the political order that we don’t like, that is defying the United States, that somehow organically the population will rise up and construct a liberal, secular political orderNotwithstanding the fact that the fighters are jihadists, they will construct a liberal secular political orderWe have this delusion time and time again, and I think it’s something deeply embedded in American strategic culture.”  And the growing impact of money from Arab states in the Persian Gulf makes it “increasingly difficult to question what some of our friends are doing,” in Syria and elsewhere.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Iran and the “Mad Mullah Myth”: Leveretts’ Forthcoming Book Excerpted in Harper’s

Our new book, Going to Tehran:  Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, will be published by Henry Holt’s Metropolitan Books imprint on January 8, 2013.  We are very gratified that Harper’s published an excerpt from Going to Tehran in its November issue, see here, entitled “The Mad Mullah Myth:  The Dangers of Misunderstanding Iran’s Strategy.”

One of the main themes in Going to Tehran is that America’s Iran debate is fundamentally distorted by a series of myths—namely, that the Islamic Republic is irrational, illegitimate, and can easily be isolated in its regional environment and, ultimately, undermined by the United States.  The Harper’s excerpt lays out some of the main points in our critique of the irrationality myth.  It opens by noting that

“In the more than thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, Western analysts have routinely depicted the Islamic Republic as an ideologically driven, illegitimate, and deeply unstable state.  From their perspective, Iran displayed its fanatical character early on, first in the hostage crisis of 1979-81, and shortly afterward with the deployment of teenage soldiers in ‘human wave’ attacks against Iraqi forces during the 1980s.  Supposedly the same Shi’a ‘cult of martyrdom’ and indifference of casualties persist in a deep attachment to suicide terrorism that would, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, end in catastrophe.  Allegations of the Iranian government’s ‘irrationality’ are inevitably linked to assertions that it is out to export its revolution across the Middle East by force, is hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, and is too dependent for its domestic legitimacy on anti-Americanism to contemplate improving relations with the United States.”

Of course, the veteran diplomat Chas Freeman has pointed out that “to dismiss a foreign government, policy, or circumstance as ‘irrational’ is to confess that one does not understand its motivations, causes, or calculus, has no idea how to deal with it short of the use of force, and has no intention of making the effort to discover how to do so.”  And we point out that

if Western political elites were to make an effort to understand Iran and its motivations, they would discover that the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be a highly rational actor in the conduct of its foreign policy.  The Iranian government did not launch a holy war against Iraq in the 1980s; rather, it struggled to defend the Iranian people against a brutal Iraqi invasion that was directly supported by many of Iran’s neighbors as well as by Western power, including the United States.  When in the course of that was Iran was subjected to years of chemical-weapons attacks, Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father, and his associates chose not to weaponize Iran’s stockpiles of chemical agents, a move that would have enabled it to respond in kind.  And for years now the Islamic Republic’s most senior political and religious leaders have rejected the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons, both on strategic grounds and because, in their view, nuclear weapons violate Islamic morality.”

We go on to debunk Western conventional wisdom about Tehran’s “support for terrorism.”  We describe how, “if Westerns looked soberly at the record, they would discover that Iran is not aggressively exporting revolution.”  Likewise, we explain that, while Iranian policymakers believe that Israel is an illegitimate state, “Iran is not out to destroy” it—and has never threatened to do so, contrary to Western mythology.  Iranian leaders “take a long view of their standoff with Israel, expecting that the unsustainability in the twenty-first century of apartheid-like arrangements will lead to the fall of Israel’s current political structure—not to the annihilation of the Jewish people.  Such an expectation, although disturbing to many Israelis, does not constitute a threat to liquidate Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.”  Furthermore,

The record also shows that Iran has not been stubbornly antagonistic toward the United StatesOver the past two decades, Tehran has consistently cooperated on issues when Washington has requested its assistance, and it has frequently explored the possibilities for improved American-Iranian relationsIt is the United States that has repeatedly terminated these episodes of bilateral cooperation and rebuffed Iranian overtures, reinforcing Iranian leaders’ suspicion that Washington will never accept the Islamic Republic.”

The Islamic Republic continues to frame its foreign policy around principles that reflect its religious and revolutionary roots.  But for many years now it has defined its diplomatic and national-security strategies in largely nonideological terms, on the basis of national interests that are perfectly legitimate:  to be free from the threat of attack and from interference in its internal affairs; to have its government accepted by its neighbors and by the world’s most militarily powerful stateFor more than twenty years, the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be capable of acting rationally to defend and advance these interestsAmericans may not like Tehran’s strategic and tactical choices—its links to political factions and their associated militias in Afghanistan and Iraq, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its pursuit of nuclear-fuel-cycle capabilitiesBut these choices are far from irrational, particularly in the face of continuing animosity from Washington.”

As America enters a period of perhaps decisive choices in its Iran policy during President Obama’s second term, we offer Going to Tehran (as we write in the Introduction) as “a challenge to our fellow Americans and others to reconsider what they think they know about the Islamic Republic.”  We hope that it has an impact.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett