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The Race for Iran

Hillary Mann Leverett on America’s Persistent (and Ever Wrong) Iran Mythology

Speaking at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference in Washington, Hillary pointed out that “for over 30 years, we in the United States—and particularly here in Washington—have put forward a series of myths about the Islamic Republic of Iran:  that it’s irrational, illegitimate, and vulnerable.  And in so doing, we have consistently misled the American public and our allies about what policies will work” to deal with the Islamic Republic. 

–The title of the panel on which Hillary appeared was itself revealing about continuing influence of America’s Iran mythology on contemporary discussion of Iran-related issues in Washington:  “American and Arab Policy Successes and Shortcomings Regarding the Regional Geopolitical Dynamics of Iran.” 

–To watch the panel, see here.    

–Viewing the panel in its entirety says much about the present state of America’s Iran debate:  the other panelists include Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation (who embodies DC conventional wisdom on Iran) and Trita Parsi (who has made his own signal contributions to America’s Iran mythology, especially after the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election), with Ken Katzman of the Congressional Research Service as a discussant.  For those who just want to hear Hillary, go 21:20 into the video.    

Picking up on the theme of America’s persistent Iran mythology, Hillary notes that, “for over 30 years, the Islamic Republic has defied constant predictions of its collapse or defeat.  But American policy elites still put forward myths about the Islamic Republic that ignore or, in fact, contradict basic forces driving political life inside the Islamic Republic—with the idea that if we just believed these myths enough, if we just believed, we’d see how to deal with the Islamic Republic.” 

Extending here argument, Hillary explains that the most dangerous of these myths is “the depiction of the Islamic Republic as a system so despised by its own population [that] it is in imminent danger of , in imminent danger of overthrow—a vulnerability that, in the prevailing view here in Washington, can be exploited by the United States and out allies.”  Today, she notes, “this idea comes out in two interlocking arguments: 

–The first is that sanctions are ‘working.’      

–The second is that the Arab Awakening has left the Islamic Republic isolated in its very own neighborhood.”

–And, of course, “with sanctions ‘working,’ some policy elites argue that Iranians will rise up to force fundamental political change, and to force their government to make concessions.” 

Against these myths, Hillary’s presentation offers a bracing demonstration of “how it is American elites, not those in Tehran, who are in denial about basic political trends in the Middle East.”    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


What the Obama-Romney Foreign Policy Consensus Means for U.S. Interests; Hillary Mann Leverett on al Jazeera

Commenting on the Obama-Romney foreign policy debate on Al Jazeera, click on video above or link here, Hillary Mann Leverett pointed out that “the one question that could not really be sharply asked or answered was:  ‘Was the American ambassador in Libya actually killed by people who were armed, trained, and funded by the United States and our so-called allies.’  That can’t be asked because both of these candidates are about remaking the Muslim world and killing Muslims with drones.  That’s not a serious policy.  A serious policy should look squarely at what the United States is doing, in terms of arming, training, and funding people to overthrow their governments.  That’s not normal, constructive behavior, and it will come back to haunt the United States.” 

The Obama-Romney debate revealed much about the strategic and moral bankruptcy of America’s approach to the Middle East.  On Syria, attachment to the delusion that the United States can arm, fund and train fighters to undermine the Assad government—and that some of those same fighters won’t turn weapons they have been given against U.S. and Western interests—remains strong in both the Democratic and Republican camps.  This delusion is grounded, in large part, in an assessment that overthrowing the Assad government—Iran’s “only Arab ally”—will undermine Iran’s regional position and perhaps even spark the Islamic Republic’s overthrow.  But, as Hillary notes, “Iran’s ‘only Arab ally’ today is not Syria.  Did [Romney] ever hear of Iraq?  Iraq is today Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.  That’s a huge country.  Iran can also get anywhere it wants through Suez, because now it has Egypt.  So, for the first time in 30 years, Iranian military ships can go through Suez.”  

Like its Libya policy, America’s policy toward Syria also holds significant potential for blowback.  This was highlighted by recent reports of anti-Assad fighters in Jordan taking weapons they had been provided, ostensibly to use in their campaign to unseat the Syrian government, and instead making plans to attack the U.S. Embassy and other targets in the Hashemite Kingdom.  As Hillary comments, “That doesn’t even get questioned…People don’t even seem to be phased by it, that there was a planned attack on a[nother] U.S. Embassy that could have killed more Americans, because of a policy that we’ve egged on in Syria, just like we egged it on in Libya and then we are ‘shocked, shocked’ when our ambassador gets killedWe’re going to be ‘shocked, shocked’ again that we’re going to have a problem in Jordan or some of the other pro-American client states.”    

On Iran, Obama was, if anything, more hawkish than Romney.  As Hillary points out, Obama “actually gave Prime Minister Netanyahu his red line”—by noting how, as a result of America’s intelligence cooperation with Israel, the United States would know when Iran is approaching “breakout” capability and pledging that a re-elected Obama administration would act military to prevent the Islamic Republic from crossing such a threshold.  Romney, in contrast, “focused on an oil embargo, which will have devastating [humanitarian] effects…but it’s not the same red line that Netanyahu has been demanding and that I think he received in a significant way tonight from President Obama.”  Hillary excoriates Romney’s proposal to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—“who will be leaving office in a few months”—for inciting genocide as a call to indict Ahmadinejad “for the nonexistent threat that Ahmadinejad never made to wipe Israel off the map.  That has become a social fact because the President, others, other candidates, and many in the media repeat it…But it was never said.  And now Romney would like to initiate court proceedings.” 

On Afghanistan, Hillary’s fellow commentator, former British diplomat Carne Ross, notes that “neither candidate really mentioned the fact that [America’s] Afghanistan policy is in crisis, that there is a really severe threat of a complete breakdown after the U.S. withdrawal; indeed, that breakdown is arguably already happening.”  Picking up on the point, Hillary recounts how Obama “decided to send tens of thousands of young Americans [to Afghanistan]—some of whom I’ve had in my classes at American University—who go believing that they are fighting for something, but the something seems to have been just political cover to let Obama take troops out” later, even though the situation is deteriorating.  Afghan “security forces are being trained up—and are killing their American trainers.  This is a crisis.  There’s no political strategy.  There’s no political vision” on how to stabilize Afghanistan through a negotiated political settlement and power-sharing among various Afghan constituencies. 

Finally, on China, Hillary critiques America’s “pivot to Asia”—which is likely to continue and intensify either under a re-elected Obama administration or a new Romney administration—as “fail[ing] to understand the changing balance of power and the rise, not just of China, but of India, of the BRICS, of even Iran and Turkey, of even Egypt.  It fails to understand that the United States is a country, not in absolute decline, but in relative decline.  In that circumstance, we have to be able to play well with others, not just beat them in these so-called wars.” 

In Hillary’s view, Romney lays out a maximalist strategy, “which will require a tremendous amount of money we don’t have,” to “pacify the entire world”:  a strategy for the United States to “to bring peace (peace just means pro-American political and security order) to the world.  We have to bring it everywhere.  That means not just trying to pursue dominance and hegemony in the Middle East, but in Asia and everywhere.”  And while Romney is being criticized in some quarters for having embraced too many of the same policies that Obama has pursued during his first term in office, Obama could just as easily (and accurately) be criticized for pursuing too many of George W. Bush’s foreign policies.   

And that’s the state of America’s foreign policy “debate.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Hillary Mann Leverett on What’s Really Behind Iran Sanctions


On Al Jazeera’s Inside Story this week, see here, Hillary underscored that, notwithstanding Western rhetoric about “targeted” measures that punish the Iranian government but somehow spare ordinary Iranians, the real purpose of sanctions is “to increase hardship for ordinary Iranians”—just as “sanctions imposed on other governments and other systems, like the sanctions that were imposed for over a decade on Iraq,” were intended to make ordinary Iraqis suffer.  In contrast to the all-too-frequent line put forward in Washington, Hillary makes clear that the sanctions against Iran “are in no way targeted.  When you sanction the Central Bank of Iran, when you say that SWIFT can’t handle banking transactions into and out of Iran, you are covering transactions that people need in order to buy food and medicine…There’s nothing targeted about it.” 

As Hillary reminds, we know very well how effective sanctions proved at making ordinary Iraqis suffer; more than one million Iraqi civilians—half of them children—died as a result of their imposition.  This was the policy that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright revoltingly defended with her claim that “the price was worth it.”  And worth it for what?  As Hillary recounts, “to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons he didn’t have.” 

Likewise, the United States is sanctioning Iranians “over a nuclear weapons program that the Islamic Republic does not have.  Both the U.S. intelligence agencies and even the Israeli intelligence agencies say that the Islamic Republic does not have a weapons program.”  Yet, we are going through the same “bad movie once again” as with Iraq. 

The claim that sanctions are intended to facilitate nuclear diplomacy is, to say the least, disingenuous.  As Hillary describes, the underlying problem that the United States and its allies have with the Islamic Republic is not just the nuclear program.  Sanctions in the United States and elsewhere against Iran have been authorized over

“the nuclear issue, but also on questions about Iran’s human rights behavior and human rights and its supposed sponsorship of terrorism…If, for some reason, there were some kind of progress, some kind of advance in nuclear talks…the United States could not lift its sanctions, for two reasons.  One, most of the sanctions have been done legislatively, so whatever the President wants to do doesn’t matter; Congress here will have a veto.  And two, even if there were progress on the nuclear issue, that would do nothing to address the United States’ supposed concerns about Iran’s human rights and support for so-called terrorism…There’s no way that Iran gets out of this, just like there was no way that Iraq could get out from under its sanctions.”         

So why do American administrations and the Congress want to inflict such suffering on mass populations in countries that defy Washington?  As Hillary explains, the United States does this “with the idea that [people] will then rise up and overthrew their government and get rid of a system that Washington does not like.”  (One of the other guests, Sadeq Zibakalam of the University of Tehran, observes that most Iranians do not believe that the sanctions are really about Iran’s nuclear activities; from an Iranian perspective, if America and its allies were not focused on the nuclear issue, they “would have picked up on something else” as an excuse to punish the Islamic Republic for its revolutionary origins and insistence on an independent foreign policy.) 

Yet, as Hillary relates, history shows that sanctions do not work actually to force a population to rise up and overthrow its government.  Even after killing over one million Iraqis, sanctions did not move Iraqis to overthrow their government—only an armed invasion by the United States did so.  More significantly, the specific historical experience with sanctioning post-revolutionary Iran indicates that the Islamic Republic responds to the infliction of hardship with “an increased ability to rely on indigenous production, indigenous capacity”—from the Iran-Iraq war until the present day. 

Of course, the historical record is poorly understood in much of the world where the Islamic Republic is concerned.  Even on this Inside Story episode, Al Jazeera’s moderator makes two shockingly inaccurate claims—that Iran “is importing gasoline at the moment, simply because it does not have the infrastructure or, indeed, the economic power at the moment to refine enough gasoline for the automobiles within its own country” (the Islamic Republic is now a net exporter of gasoline) and that “this raises questions about a country that can have the ability to refine uranium to the 20-percent in which it can be used in nuclear weapons” (20-percent enrichment is, of course, nowhere close to the level required for weapons-grade fissile material).       

Hillary drives home that a widespread lack of historical knowledge about sanctions and contemporary realities in the Middle East allows those “who want to have even more forceful, coercive, military actions” to say “look, sanctions didn’t work, we checked that box, [and now] we have to take even more military, more aggressive action against this recalcitrant state that is challenging, particularly, U.S. policies and preferences.  That is exactly what happened with Iraq, and this is, unfortunately, the road we’re on with Iran.” 

And Hillary makes clear that such an outcome will impose severe costs not just on the Islamic Republic, but even more so on the United States itself:  “The problem is not only the moral cost of the number of Iranians who will suffer, but…what this will do to the United States—our position in the Middle East and our position in the global economy.  We cannot afford yet again to make a mistake, as we did in Iraq, and to make it on a scale exponentially larger with the Islamic Republic of Iran…My concern is that this path leads us to another unnecessary war in the Middle East, that will not only kill people but will dramatically degrade America’s standing.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Picture from CNN's Special Program on Iran's Nuclear Program

Last month, in connection with the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in Istanbul, Hillary appeared in a CNN International Special Presentation with Christiane Amanpour,  A Nuclear Iran: The Expert Intel.  Other guests included Mohammad Javad Larajani and Robert Kelley (formerly with the IAEA).  The video can be viewed by clicking here (it is in three separate parts).   We have been critical of CNN’s Iran-related coverage in the past.  But this in-depth mini-documentary seems a genuine attempt to break through much of the unsubstantiated hype and flat-out bogus information that dominates Western reporting and analysis on the Iranian nuclear issue.  Still, as the program was broadcast on CNN International, it is not readily available to viewers based in the United States.

As for the nuclear talks, it seems that isolated parts of the mainstream Western media are beginning to realize something that should have been manifestly evident before any negotiators arrived in Istanbul: the major variables that will determine the success or failure of the talks are not whether the Iranian side is “serious” or whether there is sufficient consensus in Tehran to make a deal possible.  The main variables are on the Western (especially U.S.) side: is the Obama Administration prepared to define a realistic endgame for negotiations and, as the parties work toward that endgame, what is it (and its European partners) prepared to put on the table with regard to sanctions and recognizing Iran’s right to enrich. 

We were skeptical about the administration’s seriousness on these points before the Istanbul meeting.  We have seen no reason since that meeting to revise our estimate. 

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Hillary appeared on Konflikt (Conflict), Swedish Radio’s in-depth foreign affairs program, to talk about her experience as an American diplomat negotiating with Iranian counterparts over Afghanistan and how that experience informs her current views about U.S. and Iranian strategies in the Middle East today.   You can listen to the interview, which is in English after a very brief introduction in Swedish, by clicking: here.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett