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The Race for Iran


Last week, the Obama Administration formally charged the Islamic Republic of working with al-Qa’ida. The charge was presented as part of the Treasury Department’s announcement that it was designating six alleged al-Qa’ida operatives for terrorism-related financial sanctions, see here. The six are being designated, according to Treasury, because of their involvement in transiting money and operatives for al-Qa’ida to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The announcement claims that part of this scheme was a “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al-Qa’ida, whereby Tehran allowed the terrorist group to use Iranian territory in the course of moving money and personnel.

For the most part, major media outlets uncritically transmitted the Obama Administration’s charge, without much manifestation of serious effort to verify it, find out more about the sourcing upon which it was based, or place it in any sort of detailed and nuanced historical context. Stories by Joby Warrick, see here, in the Washington Post and Helene Cooper, see here, in The New York Times exemplify this kind of “reporting”.

For nearly ten years, a cadre of hawkish analysts, politicians, and some Iranian expatriates have pushed their insistent but unsubstantiated claims of extensive collaboration between the Islamic Republic and al-Qa’ida. Some even charged that Osama bin Ladin was “living in luxury” in Iran, an assertion later elaborated in a 2010 “documentary” film that was extensively “covered” on Fox News.

During her service at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and at the National Security Council in 2001-2003, Hillary was one of a handful of U.S. officials who participated in nearly two years of substantive talks with Iranian counterparts about Afghanistan and al-Qa’ida.

–Since leaving government, we—and other former U.S. officials knowledgeable about the U.S.-Iranian dialogue over these matters—have related how the Iranians raised, almost immediately after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the problem of al-Qa’ida personnel trying to make their way from Afghanistan into Iran, consistently warning about the difficulties of securing Iran’s 936 kilometer-long border with Afghanistan (as well as its 700 kilometer-long border with Pakistan).

–We and others have also related how Tehran documented its detention of literally hundreds of suspected al-Qa’ida operatives, repatriated as many of these detainees to their countries of origin as it could, and requested U.S. assistance in facilitating repatriations of detainees whose governments did not want to cooperate (a request the Bush Administration denied).

–Furthermore, we described how, over the course of 2002 and early 2003, Bush Administration hardliners made substantive discussion and coordination with Iran over Iraq dependent on Tehran finding, arresting, and deporting a small number of specific al-Qa’ida figures—beyond the hundreds of suspected al-Qa’ida operatives the Islamic Republic had already apprehended—that Washington suspected had sought refuge in Iran’s lawless Sistan-Balochistan province. Although Tehran deployed additional security forces to its eastern borders, Iranian officials acknowledged that a small group of al-Qa’ida figures had managed to avoid capture and enter Iranian territory, most likely through Sistan-Balochistan, in 2002. The Iranian government located and took some of these individuals into custody and said that others identified by the United States were either dead or not in Iran. At the beginning of May 2003, after Baghdad had fallen, Tehran offered to exchange the remaining al-Qa’ida figures in Iran for a small group of MEK commanders in Iraq, with the treatment of those repatriated to Iran monitored by the International Committee for the Red Cross and a commitment not to apply the death penalty to anyone prosecuted on their return. But the Bush Administration rejected any deal.

Today, much of the American media unquestioningly “reports” information provided by the U.S. government about Iran’s supposed links to al-Qa’ida, noting, as Helene Cooper does in her story, that U.S. “officials admit that they are largely in the dark about what is going on with the Qaeda operatives believed to be in Iran.” But the only reason why the United States does not know more or have a cooperative relationship with the Islamic Republic over al-Qa’ida is that Washington cut off talks with Tehran over al-Qa’ida and Afghanistan in late May 2003. This decision was supposedly taken because the Defense Department claimed to have a communications intercept indicating that an al-Qa’ida figure inside Iran might have been involved in the May 12, 2003 Riyadh terrorist bombings. But the claim was never substantiated and was disputed by much of the U.S. Intelligence Community; by 2007, the Bush Administration was reduced to telling the Washington Post that “there are suspicions, but no proof” that an al-Qa’ida figures in Iran “may have been involved from afar in planning” the May 2003 attacks, see here.

Not even the George W. Bush Administration was prepared to make concrete accusations that the Islamic Republic was deliberately facilitating al-Qa’ida’s terrorist activities. Now, however, the Obama Administration is advancing specific, on-the-record charges that Iran is helping al-Qa’ida. There is no reason for anyone to have any confidence that official Washington “knows”, in any empirically serious way, that Tehran is cooperating with al-Qa’ida in the ways that are alleged.

Of the six al-Qa’ida operatives sanctioned by the Treasury Department last week, only one is alleged to be physically present in Iran—and, by Treasury’s own account, he is there primarily to get al-Qa’ida prisoners out of Iranian jails. Moreover, the United States apparently has no hard evidence that the Iranian government is supportive of or even knowledgeable about the alleged al-Qa’ida network in the Islamic Republic. In her story, Helene Cooper writes that a “senior Administration official” said “in a conference call for reporters” (which means that the White House wanted everyone to hear this, and Helene did not have to leave her office to hear it), that “our sense is this network is operating through Iranian territory with the knowledge and at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities”. A “sense” that al-Qa’ida is operating in Iran with “at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities” now apparently amounts to proof of a “secret deal” that can be authoritatively referenced in the announcement of a legally and politically significant action by the Treasury Department.

This is all strongly reminiscent of the way in which the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations prepared the way for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. And much of the mainstream media seems content to reprise the dishonorable role they played in making that war possible. As her pre-war reporting on Saddam Husayn’s weapons of mass destruction programs unraveled in the war’s aftermath, Judy Miller of The New York Times sought to defend herself by arguing that “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself.” Ms. Miller may no longer be at The New York Times. But it seems that her spirit lives on there, at the Washington Post, and in too many other journalistic venues.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Obama’s Iran Sanctions Delusion


As anticipated in our post on The Washington Note on October 13 (and a monograph published by Johns Hopkins’ Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies earlier this week), China authoritatively signaled today that it will not support the imposition of anything approaching “crippling” international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.

Nor will Chinese leaders support measures that would negatively impact what Beijing sees as its most important economic and strategic interests at stake in China’s developing relationship with the Islamic Republic.


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Understanding China’s Iran Policy

Earlier this week, we participated in a panel on Chinese-Iranian relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The event, sponsored by SAIS’s Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies and the New America Foundation’s Iran Project and moderated by Kent Calder, launched a new monograph that we have written with our colleague, John Garver, an outstanding China expert at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. The monograph, published by the Reischauer Center in its Asia-Pacific Policy Papers series, is entitled Moving (Slightly) Closer to Iran: China’s Shifting Calculus For Managing Its Persian Gulf Dilemma. At the risk of appearing immodest, we believe that Moving (Slightly) Closer to Iran offers the best analysis currently available on the economic, political, and strategic dynamics shaping the evolving and critically important relationship between China and Iran.


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Over the last decade, the Islamic Republic of Iran has emerged as a key player in the most consequential political and strategic dramas unfolding across the Middle East. These include the potential spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the fight against Islamist extremism, and assuring the adequacy of oil and gas supplies from the Persian Gulf for international energy markets. In the process, the Islamic Republic has consolidated a role as de facto leader of resistance to America’s hegemonic posture and aspirations across the broader Middle East—in the Persian Gulf, the Arab-Israeli arena, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

Today, the ongoing competition for regional influence between the United States and Iran is the Middle East’s most strategically significant fault line. Even the Arab-Israeli conflict is now subordinated to the U.S.-Iranian struggle—not, as some would suggest, because regional players care less about Arab-Israeli issues, but because it is now impossible to achieve negotiated settlements on the unresolved tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict without a more productive U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Iran’s “rise” makes the Islamic Republic’s choices regarding its alignment toward key international players an increasingly critical factor in regional and global power balances. As a result, the Islamic Republic has become a strategic focus not only for the United States, but for important countries in and outside the Middle East. As the hegemonial struggle between the United States and Iran plays out, both established and rising powers—China, Europe, India, Russia—are seeking to influence this competition in ways that will promote their economic and strategic interests. Likewise, major Middle Eastern states—Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey—must deal with the impact of Iran’s rise and the evolving dynamics of U.S.-Iranian relations on their own places in the regional balance of power.

Taken together, we call these two interlocking geopolitical contests—one between Washington and Tehran over strategic dominance in the broader Middle East, and the other among major international and regional players for influence over the Islamic Republic’s strategic orientation—the “race for Iran”. (This phrase was first used by Flynt Leverett in a June 2006 Op Ed in The New York Times.) So defined, the “race for Iran” will have determinative influence over the structure of international relations—and, in particular, for America’s longstanding hegemonic position in the Middle East—throughout the first half of the 21st century.

We are launching this blog to track and understand the “race for Iran”, in all of its myriad dimensions. In practical terms, The Race for Iran seeks to serve three main purposes.

First, The Race for Iran will present cutting-edge analyses of Iran and its geopolitics. Substantively, we will cover Iranian foreign policy in all of its dimensions, as well as the policies of the United States and other major regional and global players toward Iran. Many of the analyses presented here will come from us, but we will also provide a platform for other commentators, writing from their own intellectual and national or regional perspectives.

Second, The Race for Iran will serve as a “clearing house” for essential material on Iran and its geopolitics. With the support of Ben Katcher, an outstanding political analyst with the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program, we will assemble and frequently update documents and publications in multiple categories—UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to Iran, International Atomic Energy Agency reports on Iran’s nuclear activities, Iranian proposals for dealing with the nuclear issues and other regional and international controversies, U.S. and Western proposals for dealing with such issues, material on Iran’s economy (including its enormous hydrocarbon reserves), and resources on U.S. policy—for easy reference.

Third, The Race for Iran will provide a forum for an ongoing conversation about Iran and its geopolitics, for interested persons all over the world.

We are excited to embark on this journey, and invite you to come along with us.

— Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett