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The Race for Iran



Today—the third Monday in January—is Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday in the United States, created to honor the Christian clergyman who played a uniquely decisive role in the long struggle to win legal and political equality for Americans of African descent.  King’s work to overcome racial division in the United States made him a genuine American hero, on par with the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln; it also won him international renown—he was, among other things, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  But in the last years of his life, King’s concerns expanded beyond civil rights to encompass issues of economic justice; he also became increasingly (and critically) engaged in debates about America’s role in the world—debates that centered, to a large extent, around the war in Vietnam.

On April 4, 1967, King delivered an address, entitled “Beyond Vietnam:  A Time To Break Silence”, at Riverside Church in New York City.  More than 40 years later, it remains one of the most searing analyses we have ever encountered of the temptation to hegemony which, time and again over the last 60 years, has lured the United States into ill-conceived, highly destructive, and ultimately counterproductive foreign policies. 

King died more than a decade before the Iranian revolution.  Obviously, there is no direct evidence of what he would have thought about his country’s policies toward the Islamic Republic or the course of America’s engagement in the Middle East over the past 30 years.  But we believe that his “Beyond Vietnam” address speaks powerfully to the concerns of those who think the United States has gone badly off track in its approach to the Islamic Republic and the Middle East more generally.  The address is too long to post, in its entirety; for those who want to read the whole text (something we highly recommend), click here and here (for video excerpts and commentary).  But we have excerpted below a number of passages that, we believe, cut to the heart of the (largely self-generated) challenges that the United States faces in the Middle East today.  

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated one year to the day after he delivered this address.  He was 39 years old when he died.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.  I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together:  Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam.  The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines:  “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one.  Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.  Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.  Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.  We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak…Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.  At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud:  Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King?  Why are you joining the voices of dissent?  Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say.  Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?  And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.  Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation.  This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front.  It is not addressed to China or to Russia.  Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam.  Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem.  While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents…

[I]t should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war.  If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.  It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.  So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission—a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.”  This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war…as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God.  Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions.  We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula.  I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now.  I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators.  The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China.  They were led by Ho Chi Minh.  Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them.  Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.

Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.  With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists.  For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence.  For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.

Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not.  We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will.  Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.

After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements.  But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators—our chosen man, Premier Diem.  The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north.  The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused.  When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change—especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support.  All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy—and land reform.  Now they languish under our bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese—the real enemy.  They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met.  They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go—primarily women and children and the aged.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops.  They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees.  They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one “Vietcong”-inflicted injury.  So far we may have killed a million of them—mostly children.  They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals.  They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food.  They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform?  What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?  Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?  Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village.  We have destroyed their land and their crops.  We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force—the unified Buddhist church.  We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon.  We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?

Now there is little left to build on—save bitterness.  Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets.  The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these?  Could we blame them for such thoughts?  We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise.  These too are our brothers.

Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies.  What of the National Liberation Front—that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists?  What must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the south?  What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms?  How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the north” as if there were nothing more essential to the war?  How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land?  Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions.  Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence.  Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.

How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent Communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name?  What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part?  They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta.  And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them—the only party in real touch with the peasants.  They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded.  Their questions are frighteningly relevant.  Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.  For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

So, too, with Hanoi.  In the north, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust.  To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now.  In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies.  It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva.  After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again.

When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered.  Also it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva agreements concerning foreign troops, and they remind us that they did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.

Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made.  Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north.  He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy.  Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else.  For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy.  We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.  Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease.  We must stop now.  I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam.  I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted.  I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.  I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken.  I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours.  The initiative to stop it must be ours.

This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam.  Recently one of them wrote these words:

“Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct.  The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies.  It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat.  The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam…The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.  It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people.  The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:

  1. End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
  2. Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
  3. Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
  4. Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
  5. Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.

Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment…There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam.  I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.  The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation.  They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru.  They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia.  They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa.  We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.  Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution…I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values…A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies…The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.  A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.”  This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…

These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days…A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional.  Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.  This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept—so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force—has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.  When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response.  I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.  Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.  This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

“Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.  He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.  If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.  We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.  The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate.  History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate…We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors.  If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.  This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.  Shall we say the odds are too great?  Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?  Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets?  Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost?  The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.



In a recent comment, Arnold Evans posed the following question to us: 

“If you could choose between Egypt being ruled by Sadat/Mubarak—the first of which you both have spoken so approvingly of—or by a democratic leader who could well be as hostile to Israel as Ahmadinejad, which would you choose?  If you choose Sadat/Mubarak, then is your opposition to attempting regime change in Iran solely on the basis that such a regime change is implausible?  If Iran could be destabilized to the point that the US could impose a leader like Sadat or Mubarak is feasible, would you then support that?” 

This comment gets to the heart of what U.S. strategy in the Middle East should be.  To start with, we don’t think that regime change is a constructive policy tool for the United States.  We do not believe that the 1953 coup in Iran served U.S. interests in the long run—Stephen Kinzer’s book, All the Shah’s Men, provides lots of good discussion on this point.  We certainly judge the 2003 invasion of Iraq (a war aimed at coercive regime change in Baghdad) to have been a disaster for America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally.  So, today, we are not inclined to endorse the idea of regime change in either Cairo or Tehran. 

And, in this regard, make no mistake—a scenario of genuinely democratic elections in Egypt, which could only be realized through massive external pressure, is a regime change scenario.  Egypt’s current political order is not, and never has been organized around the idea of “free and fair” elections.  Just as we are not big fans of regime change, we are also not big fans of democracy for democracy’s sake—especially when democracy is imposed on Middle Eastern countries by the West.  

The illegitimacy of the Shah’s regime in Iran, which the United States went to such lengths to restore and support, was manifest to the world—in the end, it was opposed by the overwhelming majority of Iranian society.  But the fact that the Mubarak government does not hold power on the basis of genuinely competitive elections does not mean that it is illegitimate.  If, by some chance, the Egyptian people decide that the Mubarak government is illegitimate, in the same way that Iranians clearly decided this about the Shah, then there will be regime change in Cairo, indigenously achieved.  But the United States, for its part, should deal with the political orders prevailing in the Middle East, including the current regime in Egypt—not try to replace them with governments we find ideologically comfortable and strategically accommodating. 

On this point, we do not believe that the United States needs regime change in Tehran to improve its relations with Iran.  To do that, the United States needs to pursue smart diplomacy with the Islamic Republic’s current political structure—diplomacy, that is, which treats the Islamic Republic as Iran’s legitimate government, seeking to defend and enhance Iran’s legitimate interests.  This is something that no U.S. President since 1979—not even Barack Hussein Obama—has tried to do. 

We do not think it is correct to say that we have spoken so approvingly of the late Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat.  We have pointed out that Sadat collaborated with Nazi Germany against Britain during World War II and actually launched a war against Israel in 1973 that killed thousands of Israelis—something neither President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nor any other Iranian leader has done.  It is ironic, to say the least, that Sadat has been granted hero-like status by many in the United States and Israel while Iran’s leaders are falsely vilified as posing an existential threat to Israel and being implacably hostile to the United States.  This is a critically important point that many Americans and Israelis need to hear and internalize.

We think that American encouragement of Egypt’s realignment of its relations with the United States during the 1970s—including the Camp David accords—was an example of relatively smart diplomacy.  It was, to be sure, incomplete—it needed to be accompanied by a comprehensively structured settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and acceptance of the new political order brought about by the Islamic revolution in Iran.  Today, these remain the outstanding and profound political challenges that the United States must meet in the Middle East.  America’s failure to meet these challenges not only weakens its own strategic position, but also fundamentally undermines the security of its allies—including Egypt.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Yesterday was the 10th day of the Muslim holy month of Muharram—commemorated by Shi’a Muslims for centuries as the holy day of Ashura.  (We send our best wishes to all of our readers who are observing this special time.)  One of our readers highlighted something truly striking that happened yesterday, in connection with the observance of Ashura, but which was almost completely ignored in Western media coverage. 

In Istanbul—capital of the former Ottoman Empire and last seat of the Sunni caliphate—Ashura processions drew tens of thousands of Turks into the streets; even though the majority of Turkish Muslims are Sunni, at least 20 percent are Shi’a (most Alevi, with a relatively small number of “Twelver” Shi’a).  Notwithstanding freezing temperatures, an Ashura ceremony filled an Istanbul square with several thousand people.  The two main speakers at this event were Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who continues to advise the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on international affairs. 

Erdoğan—whose Justice and Development Party is Sunni Islamist in orientation—said that the tragedy at Karbala 1,330 years ago affects all Muslims and should serve as a source of unity between Sunni and Shi’a.

“Our prayers, cries, and screams have been echoing in the sky for 1,300 years…Hussein’s sacrifice is [a] unification rather than a farewell, it is a beginning rather than an end, brotherhood rather than separation.  It is solidarity and integration…Nobody is superior to anyone in these lands, not the Sunni to the Shiites, not the Turkish to the Kurdish, the Laz to the Circassian, or the Persian to the Arabs…We are all the same in this land, together, brothers.” 

Dr. Velayati described Imam Hussein’s uprising as a lesson to Muslims about the moral and spiritual imperative to rise against bullying powers.  In Velayati’s account, Imam Hussein remains today the symbol of uprising against oppressors and tyranny.  The former Iranian Foreign Minister linked Hussein’s struggle to the cause of modern-day Palestinians, fighting to defend their rights in the face of Israel’s ongoing tyranny against Muslims, arguing that all Muslims are called to stand with the Palestinians in this fight.

Erdoğan’s participation in the Ashura ceremony undoubtedly reflects a mixture of considerations—including a genuine commitment to ameliorating and overcoming religious and ethnic divisions that continue to plague his country and its regional neighborhood, plus an interest in “pushing” back against narrow and highly sectarian Sunni fundamentalist currents in the region.  But it also reflects a judgment that this was an appropriate moment to underscore publicly that Turkish-Iranian ties remain strong and are grounded in the deep wellsprings of a shared culture and religious heritage as well as in overlapping strategic needs. 

In the aftermath of the Wikileaks disclosures, there has been much chatter in Western media and policy circles about the degree of Arab antipathy toward the Islamic Republic.  We have previously warned against underestimating the extent of Iran’s “soft power” in the Arab world (see here)—especially based on highly selective and biased reporting on the presumed attitudes of some Arab elites (see here).  But those doing the chattering would also be well advised to ponder that America’s closest Arab allies—Egypt and Saudi Arabia—are entering a period of political uncertainty because of impending changes in top-level leadership, and are, in any event, losing influence across the region (Egypt even more than Saudi Arabia, but the trend is clear in both cases). 

Turkey, by contrast, is a dynamic and rising force in the region whose leaders have captured the attention and respect of publics across the Muslim world.  It is clearly an important partner for the Islamic Republic.  But part of why Erdoğan, his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and their associates have proven to be so effective is that they understand strategic realities—including that the Islamic Republic is an important partner for Turkey.  More than any other factor, Turkish-Iranian cooperation undergirds what our colleague Alastair Crooke describes as the emergence of a strategically consequential “northern tier” in the Middle East (including Syria, important non-state actors like HAMAS and Hizballah, and, at least prospectively, Iraq, in addition to Iran and Turkey), see here.  Western analysts and commentators who continue to highlight what they portray as the Islamic Republic’s marginalization in the region really need to think again. 

While Western media largely ignored events in Istanbul yesterday, they were able to pay attention to Iran-related non-events.   In this regard, Scott Peterson—whose overt pro-Mousavi/pro-Green bias radically skewed his coverage of the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election and its aftermath—published an emblematic piece in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, see here, about Ashura in Tehran, which continues in the line of most of his recent reporting on Iranian politics.  In his story (filed from Istanbul, where he could have been writing about Erdoğan and Velayati at the Ashura commemoration there), Peterson claims that, on Ashura last year, the Green movement, “confident in their numbers and in standing up to tyranny on Ashura”, had “protested in force”, leading “many Green Movement activists” to predict even greater success, “perhaps even the end of the regime, in the next showdown, set for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Feb. 11, 2010.”  But, as we predicted in the immediate aftermath of Ashura last year, see here, in the real world, nothing of the sort was going to happen; February 11, 2010 turned out to be a huge bust for the Green Movement, see here.  What transpired on Ashura last year was, in reality, both a clear indicator of the Green Movement’s political decline and a catalyst that accelerated this decline.  Peterson’s recounting of these events provides confirmation (inadvertent, we are sure) for the extensive collaboration between Western reporters and Green Movement activists that so thoroughly distorted Western coverage of Iran’s domestic politics in the wake of the 2009 presidential election. 

In his story yesterday, Peterson had to acknowledge that the Green Movement was “nowhere to be seen” in this year’s Ashura observances in Tehran, see here.  But hope springs eternal among at least some of Peterson’s Iranian contacts; as one of them told him, “We can’t create the ‘trigger’ of instability, [we’re] not powerful enough yet…We might be small now, but any small imbalance and we spread like wildfire”.  

An accurate and sober reading of political reality in the Islamic Republic and, indeed, across the region is essential if the United States and other Western countries are to formulate policies that promote real Western interests and foster regional stability.  Inaccurate and ideologically heated analysis, on the other hand, drives the United States closer to another misguided and lethally counterproductive war in the Middle East.  But, as far as Western media are concerned:  non-events (including some “hoped for” future that has nothing to do with current Iranian political realities) warrant a news story, but a profound and currently ongoing shift in the Middle East’s balance of power (which, among other things, entails a pronounced reduction in American influence in the region) does not. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Photo from BBC

In the run-up to a new round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran on Monday, Western commentators are re-hashing old arguments that the Islamic Republic is either too politically divided or too dependent on hostility toward the United States for its legitimacy to be seriously interested in a nuclear deal. From this perspective, the Obama administration has been more than forthcoming in its efforts to “engage” Tehran; the obstacles to diplomatic progress are all on the Iranian side.

But a sober examination of the Obama administration’s interactions with Iran since President Obama took office in 2009 reveals a dismaying mix of incompetence and outright duplicity that has done profound damage to American interests and credibility. In light of this record, the question is not whether the United States should have any confidence it can productively engage the Islamic Republic. The real question is: why should Iranian officials believe they can trust President Obama and his administration to deal with them straightforwardly and with a genuine interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff?

The recent release of the Wikileaks cables confirms the assessment we have been offering since May 2009: The Obama administration has failed to follow up on President Obama’s early rhetorical overtures to Tehran with bold steps and substantive proposals to demonstrate its seriousness about rapprochement. Strategic engagement — think Nixon and China — is not the same as “carrots and sticks”. In fact, strategic engagement requires a self-conscious effort by the United States to put “sticks” aside in order assure Iran that it is serious about realigning relations. And that is something the Obama administration has never been willing to do. (Obama’s vague letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — dispatched as Obama ignored two letters sent by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — were seen in Tehran as just the latest U.S. attempt to “game” Iran’s political system rather than to come to terms with it.)

Of course, this could all be characterized as the product of incompetence and political timidity — both are surely important drivers of the Obama administration’s Iran policy. But, more ominously, the administration has treated participation in nuclear negotiations with Iran primarily as a way of bringing international partners and the American public on board for more sanctions, and, eventually, military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets — as we warned in May 2009.

In his celebrated Iranian New Year message in March 2009, Obama said that U.S.-Iranian rapprochement “will not be advanced by threats”. But, at the same time Obama was taping this message, officials in his administration were telling European Union member states that Washington remained committed to the “pressure” track of the “dual track” approach, see this cable. And State Department talking points, see this cable, disclosed as part of the Wikileaks documents note that “the two elements of the P-5+1 strategy — engagement/incentives and pressure — were always intended to run in parallel, because without a credible threat of consequences, it is unlikely that Iran will make a strategic or even tactical change in direction.”

That, unfortunately, suggests there is something fundamentally dishonest about the Obama administration’s approach. Such an appraisal is supported by the way in which the administration has dealt with the question of refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — an issue that will be on the table again next week.

The issue of refueling the TRR arose in early June 2009 — before the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election — when Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent a letter to the Agency’s then-director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, requesting IAEA assistance in finding a supplier from which Iran could purchase new fuel for the TRR. Baradei, in turn, showed the letter to the United States and Russia.

Instead of taking the Iranian letter as the straightforward confidence-building measures — Iran buys the fuel, so it does not need to produce it — the Obama administration decided to put Tehran in a bind. By offering to swap new fuel for the TRR for the majority of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU), the United States could set a precedent that would constrain the development of Iran’s enrichment program without requiring the United States to “give up” anything of strategic significance. And, if the Iranians balked at the proposal, the United States could cite that as further evidence of Tehran’s unwillingness to accept a “cooperative” solution to concerns surrounding its nuclear activities. This was particularly important, for — as the Wikileaks documents confirm — the administration had agreed with Israel to set the end of 2009/beginning of 2010 as a “deadline” for progress in nuclear talks with Iran; after that, Washington would launch a concerted campaign for new United Nations Security Council sanctions.

The Obama administration’s “swap” proposal for refueling the TRR was crafted, quite deliberately, to advance this Machiavellian agenda. When the proposal was tabled in October 2009, the Iranians agreed “in principle” to a fuel swap, but wanted to negotiate details of timing and implementation — primarily to ensure that, after giving up a substantial quantity of LEU, they would actually receive new fuel for the TRR. But discussions with Iran to find a mutually acceptable outcome regarding the TRR — even if those discussions ultimately proved successful — would not advance the administration’s real agenda: getting the Security Council to adopt a new sanctions resolution. (Strikingly, we were told by senior British officials in November 2009 that the British government did not want the TRR proposal to succeed because, as a practical matter, that would make it impossible to get the Security Council to authorize new sanctions against Iran.)

So, instead of negotiating, the administration made the “swap” proposal a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The only diplomatic outcome acceptable to the Obama administration was Iran’s “surrender” to the original fuel swap proposal; if the administration could not get that — and get it by December 31, 2009 — then it would focus exclusively on sanctions. Thus, the Wikileaks documents show that the administration rebuffed Turkey’s initial efforts in November 2009, see this cable — made at the behest of the IAEA — to put itself forward as a depository for the Iranian LEU, pending the Islamic Republic’s receipt of new fuel for the TRR. As administration officials told Israeli counterparts at the time, the United States was planning to “pivot to apply appropriate pressure” against Iran, see this cable.

In early 2010, having made its “pivot” to pursue “crippling sanctions” against Iran, the Obama administration used tactics reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s approach during run-up to the Iraq war to press other countries. Among other things, the administration sought to use the prospect of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear installations to pressure other states into supporting new sanctions against the Islamic Republic. The Wikileaks documents reveal that, in December 2009, senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher that “he was not sure Tehran had decided it wants a nuclear weapon”, see this cable. As far back as 2005, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv reported that Israeli officials were casting doubt on their colleagues’ worst-case assessments of Iran’s nuclear activities; a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, for example, noted that Israeli assessments had “from 1993 predicted that Iran would possess an atomic bomb by 1998 at the latest”, see this cable.

But senior Obama administration officials ignored these cautionary points. Instead, senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Gates, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, and Dennis Ross peddled the unsubstantiated public rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to argue that Israel believed it would be necessary to attack Iran to prevent it from fabricating nuclear weapons. The cables show that U.S. officials used the hyped threat of Israeli military action to press China and Turkey to support tougher sanctions against Iran, even though Israeli sources had given them serious grounds to doubt Netanyahu’s highly politicized public rhetoric.

The Obama administration then adopted a duplicitous approach to dealing with Turkey and Brazil over the TRR. In early 2010, Turkey and Brazil put themselves forward as potential mediators of a deal to refuel the TRR. While the Administration was not interested in a deal, a group of senior U.S. officials — with the NSC’s Dennis Ross at the helm — persuaded Obama to manipulate his Turkish and Brazilian counterparts for what they argued would be a huge diplomatic payoff. These officials had never bought into Obama’s early rhetoric about engagement, and had their own convictions that the Islamic Republic was an inherently irrational and/or unreliable interlocutor. They judged that, if the United States continued to insist on certain conditions in any prospective arrangements to refuel the TRR, it could effectively guarantee that Tehran would never accept a deal.

On the basis of this deeply flawed assessment, these administration officials devised a plan: Lead the Turks and Brazilians to think that the United States is still interested in a diplomatic solution on refueling the TRR. Let them go to Tehran, before the Security Council voted on a new sanctions resolution, in a high-profile effort to find such a solution–but insist on terms for refueling the TRR that the Iranians will surely reject. Once the Turkish-Brazilian effort failed, the United States would be in a position to insist that both governments — non-permanent members of the Security Council — support intensified sanctions. And that would give Washington a unanimous vote in the Council authorizing a new sanctions resolution.

This is the backdrop to the letter that President Obama sent to Brazilian President Lula in April 2010; U.S. and Turkish officials tell us that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan received a virtually identical letter around the same time. The letter lays out a number of conditions that would need to be met for an international arrangement to refuel the TRR to be acceptable to the United States. The Tehran Declaration which Lula and Erdoğan negotiated in Iran the following month meets every one of these conditions. But the United States immediately — and derisively — rejected the Tehran Declaration as a basis for further negotiations and continued pushing for a new sanctions resolution, which the Security Council adopted in June (with Turkey and Brazil voting against it).

In conversations we have had with senior Iranian officials since May, our Iranian interlocutors have come across as both puzzled and troubled by the Obama administration’s categorical rejection of the TRR. Why would President Obama act in a manner so deeply damaging to the credibility of the United States on a matter of the highest international importance? As time goes on, the sad truth is becoming clear: in fact, no arrangement to refuel the TRR was acceptable to the United States in the spring of 2010. To put it bluntly, Obama lied to President Lula and Prime Minister Erdoğan. He set them up to fail, so he could get their votes for the sanctions resolution. From the White House’s perspective, the worst possible thing that these two leaders and their foreign ministers could have done was to succeed in winning Iran’s agreement to the Tehran Declaration. Without that, the duplicitous plan concocted by Obama’s “expert” team of Iran advisers would have succeeded brilliantly.

This is a truly appalling record — one that should embarrass every American who values his country’s international credibility and cares about its effectiveness as an international actor. The record is certainly raising questions for major non-Western governments about the Obama administration’s real intentions toward Iran. And, in Tehran, it is raising the prospect that no American administration — even one headed by Barack Hussein Obama — can accept and deal honestly with the Islamic Republic.


Video of the Leveretts on Charlie Rose

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett appeared on The Charlie Rose Show last night.

The video can be viewed here.

— Ben Katcher