We're posting new material at GoingToTehran.com. Please join us there.

The Race for Iran


Today, POLITICO published our newest Op-Ed, “Obama’s Slippery Slope to Strikes On Iran”.  (excerpts below but also worth reading in full on POLITICO.com)

Our piece was prompted by the partial leak of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ January 2010 memo on Iran to The New York Times last week and subsequent statements by Gates and one of his key deputies, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Fluornoy.  As we note in our Op Ed, these developments reveal two crucial points: 

“First, the Obama administration is deeply divided about its Iran policy, beyond the current effort to get new sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council.  Second—and more important—there is a serious risk that President Barack Obama may eventually be maneuvered into ordering military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.”       

Gates’ memo—which has been widely discussed since its partial leak to The New York Times but not especially well understood by the punditocracy—is consistent with the Defense Secretary’s views on Iran, going back to his service in the last two years of the George W. Bush administration.  Gates is deeply skeptical that attacking Iranian nuclear targets will accomplish anything of strategic significance, and believes the potential downsides—including retaliation against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq—could be several damaging to America’s regional position. 

As we write in POLITICO,

“Gates also seems to believe that the United States can ‘contain’ an Iran that has mastered uranium enrichment but stops short of actually building a nuclear weapon.  Even if Iran follows detonates a device, in Gates’s view it should still be eminently containable.” 

In sum, both Gates and America’s senior uniformed military leadership believe that the United States does not need to go to war over Iran’s nuclear program.  But senior officers privately express concern that the Pentagon’s preference for containment over military confrontation with Iran “is not getting the traction it should in the Obama Administration’s policymaking process.”  In this context, Gates’ January 2010 memo was intended “to leapfrog the interagency process and ‘tee up’ for presidential decision a number of specific items required for serious pursuit of a containment strategy.” 

But the Pentagon’s strong preference for containment is opposed by powerful figures at the White House—“including Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Senior Director for the ‘Central Region’ (including Iran) Dennis Ross.”  The “senior officials” who leaked Gates’ memo

“were clearly seeking to use their selective description to catalyze more robust planning for potential military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  The very option that Gates has consistently opposed.  This explains Gates’ public claim that his memo had been ‘mischaracterized’ by the leaker.  It also explains Fluornoy’s later statement that an attack against Iran is ‘off the table in the near term.’ (Though, after White House intervention, Gates’ spokesman walked back Flournoy’s comment.)”      

For some at the White House, “containment is problematic because it would be interpreted in Israel and pro-Israeli circles here as giving up on preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.”  But, we go on to note that

“others in this camp may actually believe that Washington should be preparing for military action against Iran.  As [Dennis] Ross told us before he returned to government service in the Obama administration, President George W. Bush’s successor would probably need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  Pursuing diplomatic initiatives early in Obama’s tenure, Ross said, would be necessary to justify potential military action to domestic and international constituencies. 

That is precisely what the administration has done.  First, by pursuing half-hearted diplomatic initiatives toward Tehran.  Then, when Iran did not embrace them, blaming Iran for the impasse.  Adopting containment as the administration’s posture toward Iran might undermine some White House officials’ efforts to prepare the political ground for an eventual presidential decision approving military strikes.” 

We conclude with this argument:  

Obama’s overly hedged approach to diplomacy with Tehran has succeeded only in giving engagement a bad name.  Now, he has surrendered the high ground of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that he courageously staked out during the 2008 presidential campaign, leaving militarized containment as his administration’s “moderate” (even “dovish”) alternative to more coercive options

Gates is correct that a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation would be severely damaging to Washington’s strategic position.  But containment is an inherently unstable and dangerous posture—perhaps likely to end up sparking a U.S.-Iranian war.  Meanwhile, failing to pursue serious, strategically-grounded engagement with Tehran could continue to leave the administration’s Middle East policies in free fall—accelerating the erosion of U.S. influence in this critical region.”      

There must be a better way to do foreign policy than this.   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



  1. James Canning says:


    There have been suggestions that “Akmet” on the Brussels Blog (FT) is Alfred. Check the posts on the Cyprus issue (about a week ago).

  2. Alan says:

    James – I’m not sure, I’ve wondered a couple of times about whether other posting names could be him, but none quite seem to match his startling wit.

  3. James Canning says:


    Where is Alfred of late? Is he using another name?


    The Financial Times think that the faction on Obama’s team favoring negotiations with Iran is more in favor than the faction taking the “hard” line. An FT leader yesteday called upon China to back sanctions. I of course disagree, but perhaps something mushy will be of at least minimal value.

  4. Alan says:

    James – yes, I did see Gideon’s piece in the FT. He’s always interesting, although I don’t comment as much over there these days. Maybe I miss Alfred di Genis a bit.

  5. kooshy says:


    Exactly and that’s why, as has been numerously mentioned by Leveretts more and more lack of cohesion in administrations internal and external policies, this two groups are constantly fighting and evidently Mr. Obama is not able to control since he compromised to get elected the antiwar side feel betrayed and the hawks side feels entitled, since he had agreed to continue the policies. A very fine example is the latest lick of the Gates Jan. memo. Mr. Obama’s time is mostly unsuccessfully spent to keep both sides happily glued together, and that’s why even with a democratic congress the country is at a standstill on most major policies. This has resulted in both side of his own party regretting his election.

  6. James Canning says:


    Bravo! You underline the war narrative that dupes and stooges of the war lobby put out day in, day out. The war lobby includes a large segment of the Israel lobby, and all the necons.

  7. James Canning says:


    I agree with you that the antiwar crowd blocked Hillary from getting the nomination. Obama then sold out to the war promoters, and made the very bad decision to retain Bob Gates. Another pathetic selection, of course, was Hillary at State.

  8. James Canning says:


    Good points. Bob Gates apparently “warns” the Chinese that Israel might attack Iran, if the Chinese do not support the foolish sanctions Israel presses so hard for – – as a means of deflecting attention from idiotic continued colonisation of the West Bank! Gideon Rachman has some excellent comments on this in today’s Financial Times: “Israel’s fear and loathing of Obama”.

  9. Rehmat says:

    Hasbara glore…. a few days ago, Reuters explained Islamic Republic in one sentence: “Israel, like the United States, European Union and others, suspects that Iran is developing atomic weapons, a charge Iran denies. Iran, whose president has said Israel should be wiped off the map, says its nuclear program is peaceful”. Never mind that Dr. Ahmadinejad did not call for the destruction of state of Israel or the mass murder of illegal Jewish settler – however, the fact is that the only country which has been wiped off the map – happens to be 3,000-year-old Palestine.

    Mugabe’s journey from Tel Aviv to Tehran

  10. Alan says:

    James – regarding Emir of Kuwait, a point not mentioned at all it seems is that if the Iranian nuclear sites are bombed, conventionally, it is likely to have the same effect as dropping a dirty bomb on the region. The Gulf Arabs – Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia could all face serious consequences from the fallout the bombing would generate.

    This must surely be unacceptable for the US, and they could not permit the Israelis to do it either (who couldn’t care less about any fallout). However, I don’t believe it is a serious possibility for the Israelis either, because the operation would need to be so big that it would require the use of practically their entire air force.

  11. Dan Cooper says:

    Fmr. UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter Warns Against “Politically Motivated Hype” on Iran Nuke Program.


  12. Chris says:

    Robert Gates- Bush’s legacy, Obama’s albatross.

  13. Fiorangela Leone says:

    Congratulations and thanks for posting good work on CASMII, Eric.

  14. kooshy says:


    Hillary could not have get the nomination without the Obama’s antiwar and antiestablishment crowd, why didn’t she get enough vote to be nominated?, Obama could not get elected without the money from the Hillary’s backers and approval of party bosses, a country in 2 internationally unpopular wars does not want to elect a president with less than 50% voter participation, could you imagine how much special appropriations would have been possible to pass by a congress and president who got elected with less than 50% voters participation, can you imagine international image of a warring country who is not even approved and elected by majority of its voters. So the solution was Obama with safeguard minders for important positions.

  15. Iranian@Iran,

    Thanks for pointing it out.


  16. Dan Cooper says:

    While Washington fulminates against Iran and China over human rights, it says nothing about client Egypt — where all elections are rigged, regime opponents brutally tortured and political opposition liquidated.


  17. Dan Cooper says:

    Iran ‘remains open’ to nuclear swap:

    Iran’s foreign minister has said that Tehran is still interested in a UN-drafted nuclear fuel swap swap, despite little apparent progress on the proposal at a meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).


  18. James Canning says:

    The Emir of Kuwait has made clear his ccountry opposes any attack on Iran, and supports Iranian calls for a Middle East free of nukes. We can be sure to read little or nothing in US newspapers about this.

  19. Dan Cooper says:

    U.S. Nuclear Option on Iran Linked to Israeli Attack Threat

    By Gareth Porter

    The Barack Obama administration’s declaration in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that it is reserving the right to use nuclear weapons against Iran represents a new element in a strategy of persuading Tehran that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites is a serious possibility if Iran does not bow to the demand that it cease uranium enrichment.


  20. James Canning says:


    I like Zbig Brzezinski, but I think the NPR program should not have set out as a given, that Iran is in fact developing nuclear weapons.

    Norman Finkkelstein writes about his 2009 visit to Gaza in “Gaza’s calm determination”

  21. Sakineh Bagoom says:

    Well no transcript, but here you can listen to the program with ZBig and Ted on NPR.

  22. kooshy says:

    James, yap, you got it that is what I am saying, he is one of the store minders

    Hillary she is too much of a poet she is in the” Moon and stars and flickering lights etc.etc.etc.” could be too rash and sometimes sensitive ‘It will take a village” to obliterate a nation.

  23. James Canning says:


    Ross was pretending to be acting as a mediator, and the assistant to Bill Clinton who was supposed to be a mediator, but in fact Ross was representing the government of Israel, in effect.

    The Palestinians made a serious offer to Israel at Taba Egypt just days before the moron G W Bush entered the White House in 2001. The Israelis spurned the offer because they knew they had thoroughly penetrated the incoming Bush administration and that Bush would allow the illegal settlements to proliferate.

  24. James Canning says:


    Are you saying that the Israel first crowd insisted on one of their own, in a key position, in order for Obama to get the backing he received? Hillary Clinton was much more the obvious stooge of the Israel lobby, during the campaign.

    Why would Obama let Ross elbow George Mitchell aside? With his inflated sense of self-importance, Ross as head of the Iran desk would be inclined to argue Iran is something needing work before the Israel/Palestine problem can be seriously addressed. I think Ross wants to enable Israel to keep most of the illegal settlements, even if it means permaent unrest and near-war in the Middle East. And vast expense to the US taxpayers.

  25. Fiorangela Leone says:

    Dear Drop Dead Gorgeous Basiji,
    Thomas Jefferson was not all that gorgeous, but you and Jefferson have something in common: sometimes, it takes a revolution.

    What Jefferson did not say quite so publicly is that revolutions take a great deal of courage: Americans were ‘inspired’ to watch Neda die, but loath to put themselves in the same situation.

    We — I — have done my share of protesting (complete w/jail time, which plays havoc with job prospects), letter-writing, forum-organizing — the courage of the knife but not of the blood. Nothing has changed. It has not worked. Jesus’s act of redemption was not accomplished in the Garden of Gethsemane but on Calvary.

    Reza Aslan said that “If Israel wants you dead, you’re dead.”

    I merely want Ross out of the decision making structure of the US government. Do I want that enough to wish him dead? How else can such a malevolent influence be extricated from our body politic? In an appearance on Diane Rehm show a few years back, Ross discussed the failed attempts at I/P peace under Clinton. Someone commented, “But Israel has such powerful influence; the Palestinians were overwhelmed.”
    Ross responded, “Yes, Israel is very powerfully represented. Palestinians need to do the same if they want to get the same results.”

    Are you saying then, Mr. Ross, that we Americans should adopt Israeli tactics and make you dead? That is the jujitsu of a sociopath: “We reserve the right to flagrantly break the law.” How does one counter that while maintaining the facade of “a nation of laws?”

  26. Sakineh Bagoom says:

    ZBig and Ted Coppel on NPR’s Talk of the Nation sounded pretty reasonable on ME issues. Gotta get my hands on a transcript.

  27. Bussed-In, "Drop-Dead Gorgeous" Basiji says:

    So lets see, Americans voted for a liberal “anti-Bush” candidate who was supposed to end the wars and in general revitalize America and today we are discussing whether he is going to start another war, a war potentially more devastating than any one preceding it. It seems to me that the real issue is not what will happen to Iran or the ME but what has happened to the American “republic”. This guy, American democracy, the elections where supposed to put things right again- but apparently they didn’t. And let me venture to say: THEY CAN’T! There is no hope in American democracy. Let me spell it out for you: if Americans don’t want to save their republic, nobody will do that for them, if Americans themselves do not stop the lunatics from more mass murder across the globe, some pissed off third world guys will do more than just retaliate with some planes into some towers. Dear Americans, I think its time for those who actually care about the values that originated the American republic to stop blogging (wink, wink) and chatting and start marching and protesting and taking direct political actions against these freaks. And as a bussed-in “drop-dead gorgeous” Basiji (wink, wink) if necessary, who need to start “busting some heads”. But of course all that artifical flavoring, TV watching and car driving has turned you Americans into blobs that have to take a nap after each number 2 session in the bathroom (wink, wink).

  28. kooshy says:

    Fiorangela, Castellio

    Can I answer that?
    Because he was a Condition, for the, Nomination, without any Reservation, and, he is going to stay for the Duration, that if he can achieve the Capitulation, before the next, another democratically held Election.


  29. Fiorangela Leone says:

    do you mind if I amplify that, Castillio?


  30. Castellio says:

    But why is there no resistance to these acts of folly? How can memories be so short? Why isn’t Ross out the door?

  31. James Canning says:

    Dennis Ross is playing true to form: he advised Hillary Clinton (and admitted as much during the campaign) that the game plan would be to pretend to seek engagement with Iran, to grease the skids for more sanctions and, if Iran did not grovel, potential military action. Stated baldly, Ross advocated duplicity as the governing standard for US dealings with Iran! Ross has many years of experience as a lobbyist in effect for the Israeli government of the day, against the best interests of the American people.

  32. James Canning says:


    Great post. And we should all bear in mind that Aipac took care to lower its profile in the months leading up to the insane invasion of Iraq, in case things went badly and a need arose to deflect blame for the insane invasion away from the “Israel first” crowd.

  33. James Canning says:

    Bravo, Sakineh! Richard Haass tries to reinforce the utterly preposterous, but exceedingly dangerous, notion that but for Iran, there would be no problems in the Middle East that threaten the peace of the region.

  34. James Canning says:

    Fred Hiatt, writing in today’s Washington Post, tries to reinforce the idiotic narrative of Obama’s need to “stop” Iran. From what? Operating nuclear power plants to generate electricity?

  35. Fiorangela Leone says:

    Ilan Berman was one of the featured authors at the LA Times Book festival that C Span filmed yesterday. Berman made a statement that very closely echoed a statement made by Ephraim Sneh at a 2008 AIPAC conference. Both said that, from Israel’s point of view, a. Iran is an existential threat; and b. that Iran in possession of a nuclear bomb is NOT the problem, the ayatollahs are the problem.

    Sneh prefaced his declaration with background concerning the number of Iranians who did NOT participate in elections in years prior to 2008. Sneh concluded that “the Iranian people are incapable of changing their government so we must do it for them.”

    In the LA book event, Berman also took pains to explain that AIPAC IS powerful but it is NOT lobbying for military action against Iran; heaven forefend. AIPAC has been lobbying heavily for the past several years for measures to block gas shipments to Iran, as a way of changing the ‘regime’ in Iran.

    AIPAC’s efforts are actually an attempt to protect Iran from the threat of military attack, Berman asserted passionately.

    Bless his heart.

    The panel at the LA Times event — including Berman — are quite certain the Green Movement is here to stay and that it will eventually achieve its goal of reform of the Iranian government.

    If that is the case, then Ephraim Sneh’s scenario has dramatically changed; the Geeen Movement has demonstrated that Iranian people ARE capable of reforming their own government. And if Iran’s government is the source of the “existential threat” plaguing Israel, and the Greem movement is broadly believed to be on a path to eventual reform of Iran’s government, than Israel should be able to leaven its ‘existential fear’ with cautious optimism, and the wisest course of action the Obama administration, Israel, and AIPAX could pursue is a ‘wait and see’ approach.

    Unless, of course some other underlying agenda is in play.

  36. Rehmat says:

    Many people believe – against all known facts that Islamic Republic doesn’t pose any military threat to the US or any of its neighboring countries – Barack Obama is eventually going to cave-in to the powerful pro-Israel Lobby at home just as president Truman did in 1948 – and jump into his Veitnam.

    Kourosh Ziabari in “When Barack decides to head a Barrack”, wrote:

    “Who is in the position to decide the destiny of Iran’s nuclear program? Which table is the U.S. President referring to? What’s wrong with Iran’s nuclear program in lieu of which a 70-million nation should go on with crippling sanctions, continued threats of military strike, isolation and economic embargo? What’s the definite answer to the simple question that “why should the U.S., France and Israel possess nuclear weapons”? Which one is more offensive and violent? Iran’s nuclear program which has been demonstrated again and again that does not have anything to do with military purposes, or the adventurous, aggressive trajectory Washington and its European allies have begun to go across?

    Obama: “All options are on the table”

  37. Sakineh Bagoom says:

    Here is a piece by our friend Richard Haass as to why P/I peace process is just a distraction and why Iran should be dealt with first.
    Read more here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704448304575196312204524930.html?mod=WSJ_hpp_sections_opinion