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The Race for Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


The Human Cost of Iran Sanctions: Have Americans Really Learned Anything from the Iraq War?


When the United States and its assorted partners invaded Iraq in March 2003, polls suggested that as many as three-quarters of Americans may have supported President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war.  By the time America’s military involvement in Iraq came to a close at the end of 2011, survey data suggested that, perhaps, Americans had been at least somewhat chastened by the experience.  One poll, conducted by the Washington Post and ABC in the fall of 2011, showed that 62 percent of Americans thought that the war “was not worth fighting”; only 33 percent still believed the war had been a good idea.

Of course, wars in which American soldiers die as well as kill always attract the American public’s attention.  But it seems that Americans have hardly paid attention to the 12 years preceding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, during which the United States led another multinational coalition in imposing sanctions on Iraq that led to the deaths of more than a million Iraqis, half of them children.  (These are the sanctions that then United Nations ambassador Madeleine Albright defended with the notorious statement, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we thing the price is worth it.”)  Depending on whose estimates of civilian casualties from U.S. military action in Iraq one believes (the U.S. Department of Defense admits to just over 100,000), those sanctions may well have killed many more innocent Iraqis than the U.S. military did.

Now, it seems, the United States—on a bipartisan basis, with the Obama administration every bit as complicit as anti-Iranian Democrats and Republicans in Congress—wants to go down the same road in its policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Of course, U.S.-instigated sanctions against Iran haven’t killed anywhere near as many innocent people there yet as sanctions killed in Iraq.  But make no mistake:  U.S.-instigated sanctions against Iran are now killing innocent people.

On this point, we append below the text of a letter, see here, that Dr. Seyed Alireza Marandi, writing in his capacity as President of the Iranian Academy of Medical Science, sent to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon last month.

United Nations Secretary General 26 November 2012
His Excellency Ban Ki-Moon


As you are well aware, the United States and the European Union have imposed a financial and trade embargo against the Islamic Republic of Iran that effectively prohibits all types of financial transactions and trade between our country and all other member states of the United Nations.  The objective behind these illegal and inhumane sanctions is to apply pressure on the Iranian government by inflicting pain and misery upon ordinary people.  While the United States and the European Union claim that their sanctions do not directly prohibit the export of medicines and medical equipment to Iran, the financial sanctions they have imposed on the world make it vastly more difficult—in many instances impossible—for Iranian importers to pay for these items, effectively barring their transfer to Iran.  These brutal measures have not only affected the overall welfare of the nation’s population, especially that of women and children, they have also led to a significant rise in suffering as well as increased mortality rates as a result of the unavailability of essential drugs and shortages of medical supplies and equipment.

In line with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stresses the individual’s right to a standard of living that allows him or her to maintain health and well-being including unimpeded access to food and medical care, on behalf of the Iranian medical community, I call on you to do your utmost at least for the effective exemption of medicines, medical supplies, and foodstuffs from these unlawful sanctions.  Since this type of brutal behavior alongside the successive wars and civil conflicts initiated or supported by these countries have already led to deaths on a daily basis of uncountable innocent people across the region, it is the duty of the United Nations and the global medical community to condemn such acts and to make every effort to stop such aggressive and rogue states from carrying out such atrocious policies against innocent populations.

Yours sincerely,

Seyed Alireza Marandi , M.D.
Academy of Medical Sciences

Some in the Western media are beginning to report on cases of Iranians, including children, with serious medical conditions who have died because U.S. sanctions made medicines essential to their treatment unavailable.  Those people are every bit as much the victims of U.S. policy as if American pilots had dropped bombs on their houses, or American soldiers had entered their houses and shot them down.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


Obama’s New National Security Team Should Be Asked Serious Questions About U.S. Foreign Policy (But Probably Won’t Be)

President Obama’s pending reshuffle of his national security team is an occasion to ask hard questions about American foreign policy.  Most immediately, as Hillary told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story last week, click on video above or to link here, Obama’s nomination of his next Secretary of State—whether that is Susan Rice or someone else—provides an opening to ask pressing questions about the Obama administration’s increasing proclivity for proxy warfare against problematic Middle Eastern governments.  Above all, “Did the United States arm, fund, train, and support—either directly or through our so-called ‘allies’—the very people who killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the other Americans who did with him?”  But Obama’s most outspoken GOP critics on the issue—e.g., Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham—can’t ask those questions, “because [they’re] complicit in this policy.”  (To see Hillary’s segment, go 7:38 into the video above.)

Of course, it remains to be seen whether McCain, Graham, and their Republican colleagues stick to their guns regarding Rice’s acceptability as a nominee for Secretary of State.  But the significance of Obama’s apparent interest in nominating her goes beyond the “who’s up/who’s down” of Washington politics or Obama’s proclivity to declare consequential policy positions without having thought through how to implement themIt raises more fundamental questions about the direction of American foreign policy and grand strategy in Obama’s second term.  As Hillary explains,

Whether you are a conservative or a neoliberal interventionist—I would put Susan Rice in that category—each of these camps supports armed, military intervention by the United States in the internal affairs of other countries.  They do it for slightly different reasons, but the main strategic purpose is for the United States to pursue dominance.

This was the major grand strategy that the United States adopted in the wake of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Susan Rice has been part of this from the beginning, when she was in the Clinton administration in the early 1990s.  She has been part of this from the get-go.  So has one of the other names mentioned for the Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense position, John Kerry.  He’s also been part of it.  So has Tom Donilon [the current national security advisor].  They’ve all been part of, participated in, agreed to, pushed this idea of the American pursuit of dominance after the collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than balancing—rather than taking states as they are, as they are rising, dealing with them that way, and balancing them together.”

As to the proposition that Obama actually seeks to pull back somewhat from overseas adventurism and has a more “realist” view of the world, Hillary notes that “there’s just no evidence of it, if you look at the record.”  Upon re-election,

“the first thing [Obama] does—and his plan beforehand—is to go to Asia, to go to countries that China cares very deeply about…and to goad China into taking the United States on.  We are putting more troops into Asia, we are pushing the Chinese in ways that make no strategic sense—on issues and in areas that have no real strategic value for the United StatesThe only real reason we’re doing this is to make the Chinese understand that, under President Obama, we will not tolerate them being the power in control to dominate Asia—because we still are the global superpower, with global dominance.  That’s a critical message that Obama is pushing right from the beginning of his new administration.”

It seems unlikely that Obama’s next Secretary of State will be someone inclined toward a fundamental reconsideration of these counter-productive but well-established trends on American strategy.

Likewise, the unexpected departure of General David Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency gives Obama an opportunity to rethink his approach to the “war on terror”—including the dramatically stepped up resort to drone strikes, with significant “collateral damage” to innocent civilians.  In this regard, Hillary points out that

“General Petraeus has been…what Obama wants and what the liberal interventionists want, which is to make the CIA a corollary of the Defense Department, and to use secret funding—open-ended, unending, unchecked, unaccountable funding—to pursue military objectives:  to use drones, covert war, cyber warfare against other countries without anybody knowing or asking any questions.  The President was very comfortable with that.  Now, with the sudden disappearance of Petraeus, he has the chance to appoint someone who could actually counsel him how to see the world, how to understand profound changes that are going on in the world

I think the chances of that are nil; no one is talking about that seriously.  The big [choice seems to come down to] John Brennan, Obama’s current counterterrorism adviser within the White House, [a strong] champion of drone warfare [and an architect] of our current counterterrorism strategy, which includes killing American citizens with no due process of law.  The big choice is between him and Jane Harman, who was a member of the House of Representatives, on the intelligence committee, and who may be a slightly nicer face to what is essentially the same type of unabashed, unequivocal, and unaccountable use of cyber warfare, drones, and other kinds of secret warfare as a corollary to the Defense Department.”

In other words, it looks like the selection could boil down to a choice between an architect of drone warfare and the extrajudicial killing of American citizens (Brennan) and someone (Harman) who is so close to AIPAC that she was implicated in the FBI’s investigation, during the mid 2000s, see here, here, and here, of Israel’s alleged use of two former AIPAC employees to collect classified information from the U.S. government.

As to what to expect from Obama on foreign policy in his second term, Hillary says that “the evidence, so far, is for more of the same.”  Certainly there is no reason to anticipate much change in Washington’s approach to the Middle East:

“President Obama’s big foreign policy test or challenge came almost immediately [after his re-election] with the Israeli military attack in Gaza.  And immediately, President Obama, through his own words and his surrogates, said that Israel has an absolute right to defend itself.  [This was] something that most of the world (not many Americans here in Washington, but most of the world) looked at as bizarre, from another planet—that Israel had ‘the right to defend itself,’ while it’s lobbing thousands of [munitions] into Gaza and killing, so disproportionately, people there.  But this was his immediate reaction.  And he needs to do that, because the United States continues to see Israel strategically as an asset, not because it makes our relations with the Arab world easier—actually because it makes them harder.  It keeps Arabs down, keeps Muslims down, and allows the United States to continue to pursue dominance, particularly in the Middle East.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Liberal Shamelessness on Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran

As President Obama signaled renewed interest this week in a “diplomatic resolution to the problem” with Iran, liberal advocates of soft regime change are again coming out of the woodwork to profess their support for engaging Tehran. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen published a column in this week, see here, that reveals much about the outlook of many liberal political and policy elites regarding diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. As the re-elected Obama administration gears up for another go at nuclear negotiations with Tehran, the kind of mendaciousness and self-deception manifested in Cohen’s piece is all too likely to characterize the Iran policy debate in Washington.

Cohen opens by noting that, “in re-electing Barack Obama, [the American people] voted for peace and against a third war in a Muslim nation in little over a decade.” At the same time, Obama faces “no more immediate strategic challenge” than the Iranian nuclear issue:

“The question of whether the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace or for a breakthrough with Iran should be the first diplomatic priority for Obama’s second term amounts to a no-brainer. It’s Iran, stupid. (There are no good options in Syria and—as with most Middle Eastern issues—American non-communication with Iran on the matter is unhelpful. Iran’s constructive role in the 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan is too often forgotten.) War with Iran would be devastating, to a Middle East in transition, to U.S. interests from Afghanistan to Egypt, and to the global economy. The time available for averting conflict is limited.”

These considerations—and other factors of longer standing—should point the United States toward diplomacy with Tehran. Yet, in Obama’s first term, Cohen writes, “Republican machismo prevailed on many fronts. Demonization of Iran was a never-ending source of rhetorical inspiration. Democrats were not far behind.” Now, “diplomacy is in urgent need of resurrection.”

On the surface, anyway, so far so good. But what Cohen fails to mention is that a cadre of Obama supporters, himself included, are at least as responsible as neoconservatives for sabotaging prospects for successful U.S.-Iranian diplomacy during Obama’s first term.

–And these self-professedly well-meaning liberals did so because, fundamentally, they are no less devoted than neoconservatives to the pursuit of regime change in Iran.

–In contrast to the neocons, liberals don’t think that war is the smart way to go about encouraging regime change in Iran—but they are no less focused on regime change as their ultimate objective there.

Following the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election, Roger Cohen was one of the most assiduous voices in the Western media claiming that the election had been stolen, that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had lost his popular support, and that the massive electoral fraud required to deprive challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi of his electoral victory had undermined the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. See, for example, this piece, from early July 2009, in which Cohen describes the re-elected President Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards, and the basij as “Iran’s ruthless usurpers,” asserting that “the government is now illegitimate” and, therefore, should not be engaged.

Of course, Cohen had no evidence for any of these claims. As weeks and months went by, and no proof of electoral fraud emerged—much less fraud on the scale needed to account for Ahmadinejad’s 11-million vote victory margin—he ultimately fell back, see here, on “sometimes you have to smell the truth.” (For its part, The New York Times seemed all too happy to publish such fatuousness.)

Cohen was certainly not alone in advancing this kind of evidence-free analysis. Other liberal stalwarts—including Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione, Thomas Friedman (Cohen’s colleague at The New York Times), Barbara Slavin, and Robin Wright—joined in. The West’s “best” and “most respected” Iran analysts—including Ali Ansari, Reza Aslan, Farideh Farhi, Suzanne Maloney, Trita Parsi, Karim Sadjadpour, and Ray Takeyh (several of them expatriates who want the Islamic Republic to disappear so that their vision of a secular liberal Iran might be fulfilled, even though that is manifestly not what most Iranians who actually live in their country want)—gave it their imprimatur.

Virtually all of these figures had anticipated that Mousavi’s electoral challenge to Ahmadinejad would succeed. Their hopeful expectation rested not on dispassionate analysis of Iranian political trends, but on a deeply held, largely unquestioned assumption: that Iran is inevitably headed toward liberal democracy—because that’s what American liberals and many U.S.-based Iranian expatriates want it to become, just like neoconservatives do. (What is the ultimate goal for Parsi and the organization he heads, the National Iranian American Council? According to NIAC’s Web site, “a world in which the United States and a democratic Iran”—no mention of the Islamic Republic—“enjoy peaceful, cooperative relations.”) And when those pesky Iranian voters did not defer to liberal outsiders’ vision for their future—most Iranians, it seems, want a system that seeks to combine participatory politics with principles of Islamic governance—many of the same liberals and expatriates persisted in their penchant for analysis-by-wishful-thinking, cavalierly dismissing the election results as the product of fraud.

This sort of wishful thinking is not benignly incorrect; it has had real (and negative) impact on the prospects for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy—which most liberals say they prefer to U.S. military action against Iran or another ill-begotten American campaign for coercive regime change in the Middle East. Cohen, Parsi, and other like-minded activists and commentators led the charge in pressing the Obama administration to take what Parsi, see here, called a “tactical pause” from diplomacy with Tehran—which had not even commenced at that point—because the Islamic Republic was potentially on the verge of collapse. Or, as Cohen wrote (rather floridly) in early July 2009,

“Obama must leave [Khamenei and Ahmadinejad] dangling for the foreseeable future. He should refrain indefinitely from talk of engagement…To do otherwise would be to embrace the usurpers…

I’ve argued strongly for engagement with Iran as a game-changer. America renewed relations with the Soviet Union at the time of the Great Terror and China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Operation Jackboot has not, as yet at least, involved mass killings.

But the Iran of today is not the Iran of three weeks ago; it is in volatile flux from without and within. Its Robespierres are running amok. Obama must do nothing to suggest business as usual. Let Ahmadinejad, he of the bipolar mood swings, fret and sweat. Let him writhe in the turbid puddle of his self-proclaimed ‘justice’ and ‘ethics’…The price of Obama’s engagement may just have become Ahmadinejad’s departure. I think it has.”

Deploying such unsubstantiated but inflammatory claims, it was Obama’s liberal base in 2009 which derailed possibilities for U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy—just as Bush’s neoconservative stalwarts did with their designation of Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” in the wake of 9/11.

–The Obama administration had previously decided to delay serious engagement with Tehran until after the June 2009 election, hoping that it could then deal with a Mousavi-led government. There was, of course, no reason to expect that such a government would have taken a fundamentally different tack in nuclear negotiations with the United States—but that wasn’t the point for Mousavi’s backers in Washington. The point was to enhance Mousavi’s chances for victory, and with that victory, get Iran back on the path toward a more Westernized, liberalized, and ultimately secularized political future.

–With the controversy (fueled by Cohen, Parsi, and others) that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election victory, the administration did not get back on track to start nuclear talks with Iran until the fall of 2009—even though Obama had promised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that, if negotiations had not produced results by the end of 2009, the United States would put diplomacy aside and push for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic. This meant that the Obama administration put its (convoluted and one-sided) proposal for a fuel “swap” to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor on the table as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, thereby dooming prospects for a deal—just as a re-elected Obama administration is today considering making even more one-sided, take-it-or-leave-it proposals to Iran regarding its nuclear activities.

More broadly, the unsubstantiated portrayal of the 2009 election as stolen—the portrayal pushed by Cohen, Friedman, Parsi, Sadjadpour et al.—has helped to enable neoconservative policy outcomes.

–Thus, NIAC’s advocacy of “targeted” or “precision” sanctions, see here, against the Iranian government has served only to facilitate the passage of broad-based sanctions.

–Similarly, by arguing that he was all in favor of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, just not after a particular election and not with what he alleged (again, with no evidence), were political thieves, Cohen provided de facto legitimation to neoconservatives, supporters of the MEK, the pro-Israel lobby, and others who say that (take your pick) Iranian officials’ rhetoric about Israel, Tehran’s support for groups resisting Israeli occupation, the Islamic Republic’s insistence on including religion in its constitution, its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, and/or Iranians’ annual commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom on Ashura render engagement with Iran a fool’s errand—politically, morally, and strategically.

For U.S. policymakers, the most fundamental question with regard to pursuing diplomacy with Iran should be: Is diplomatic engagement with Tehran, with the goal of strategic realignment between the United States and the Islamic Republic, in America’s interest?

–If it is (as we strongly believe to be the case), then the only question left is: What does the United States need to do to make engagement work?

–Anything else is not just unhelpful; it is dangerously counter-productive, ensuring that diplomacy will fail and that the risks of a strategically disastrous war (disastrous, first of all, for the United States) will rise. But that is what the liberal approach, epitomized by Cohen, Parsi, Slavin et al. has done: it has made real rapprochement between the United States and Iran less likely and war ultimately more likely.

Today, Cohen, Parsi, Slavin, and others have hopped back on the pro-diplomacy bandwagon. But look at what they and other like-minded commentators think diplomacy should entail. As Cohen writes,

“What do we want from Iran? Open up all its nuclear facilities, get rid of all its 20 percent enriched uranium, end all threats to Israel, stop rampant human rights abuses, changed policies on Hamas and Hezbollah, a constructive approach to Syria.”

Outside the nuclear sphere, an Iran that accepted such an agenda would no longer be the Islamic Republic. Indeed, John Bolton wouldn’t have any problem with that agenda; he would simply disagree with Cohen that it is possible to get Tehran to accept, through diplomacy, such thoroughgoing revision of its (internal as well as external) political orientation. Likewise, Parsi and NIAC once again favor diplomacy—but they stipulate, see here, that American engagement with Tehran must include “human rights as a core issue.”

However much they may cringe at the term, the liberals’ commitment to what might be described as a strategy of “soft” regime change in Iran is clear. In his latest Op Ed, Cohen quotes Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund president Stephen Heintz as saying that he avoids “the phrase ‘diplomatic solution’ in conversations about Iran on Capitol Hill” in favor of “’political solution.’ Diplomacy just sounds too wimpy.” For Heintz, it undoubtedly does. For the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has provided funding to Parsi’s NIAC to conduct “nonpolitical trainings” for Iranian oppositionists, see here—just as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund supported efforts to encourage political change in the former Yugoslavia and color revolutions in former Soviet-bloc states. (Also—and, we suspect, not coincidentally—the Rockefeller Brothers Fund underwrote Ali Ansari’s substantively flawed “scholarly” work to delegitimate the Islamic Republic’s 2009 election.)

We are all in favor of a “political solution.” But such a solution requires real rapprochement between the United States and Iran, based on American acceptance of the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity representing real (and legitimate) national interests. It would seem that liberals are not any more inclined toward a genuine political solution than neoconservatives are.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Iranian Perspectives on Nuclear Diplomacy: Seyed Mohammad Marandi on Inside Story

The Guardian got rather spun up last week with a story on the participation of Israeli and Iranian delegations in an academic conference on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, organized by the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium in Brussels, see here.  Indeed, the Guardian went so far as to assert, in the story’s headline, that “Israel and Iran Hold ‘Positive’ Nuclear Talks in Brussels.”  And that attention-getting claim, in turn, attracted the attention of Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, click on video above or here

After one of the conference’s participants, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, pointed out that the Guardian’s headline was “wrong,” the discussion on Inside Story explored the broader issue of diplomatic prospects for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue—a subject that is coming back onto the media radar screen in the wake of President Obama’s reelection.  On this subject, another Inside Story guest, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, was especially informative on Iranian perspectives. 

Mohammad opens by recounting that “the Iranians, of course, have said all along that they will pursue their rights as an independent country.  They are not pursuing nuclear weapons.  The political establishment has not, at any point, pushed for nuclear weapons.  In fact, the Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has said specifically that nuclear weapons are forbidden in Islam.”  Mohammad then reminds about something which many Western journalists and commentators persist in overlooking:  “The Iranians are quite willing to talk.  The Iranians have been talking with the 5+1, and if Western governments are willing to recognize Iran’s rights as an independent state, the Iranians are quite willing to be open and to resolve any issues they may have with regard to the [nuclear] program…There is a way forward, and that is for Western countries to respect Iran’s rights.” 

Filling in other essential parts of a historical record of which Western elites seem determined to remain studiously unaware, Mohammad notes that,

“In fact, the [Iranian] nuclear program began with Western government support, and their companies, before the [Iranian] revolution, initiated the program.  Billions of dollars were invested in this, and the Iranians were simply not going to throw this investment away because Western governments threaten it.  Western governments are the ones who are constantly threatening Iran with war, and the Zionist regime is also threatening Iran with war.  But Iran has never threatened any other country.” 

Regarding Israeli and Western concern about the Islamic Republic’s steadily developing capabilities to enrich uranium, Mohammad underscores that

dual purpose technology is dual purpose technology.  The Iranians cannot refrain from development simply because something can be used in a different way.  It’s like saying you can’t use a knife because it could be used to stab someone.  The Iranians, in fact, during the Iran-Iraq War, when Western regimes were giving Saddam Husayn chemical weapons to use against Iranians—and using the Security Council, by the way, to prevent Iraq from being condemned (I am a victim of those chemical weapons, and many of my friends died as a result)—the Iranians never retaliated.  Although the Iranians had all sorts of petrochemical plants and so on, they had the technology to develop chemical weapons, they didn’t…

[On the nuclear front] there’s no evidence that Iran pursued anything illegal.  Iranian enrichment right now is being used to fuel the [Tehran Research Reactor], which produces medical isotopes for cancer patients—because Western countries refused to give Iranians the fuel.  So they’re supporting cancer patients while Western regimes were taking cancer patients hostage…

The Iranians are working within the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The Iranians have that right.  And they will continue to pursue that right.  That is what makes Iran an independent country.  Iran is not Saudi Arabia, it’s not a client regime that’s aligned to the West.  The [Iranian] revolution itself was about independence…Iran does not fear the Israeli regime.  Iran has never threatened the Israeli regime.  ”  

We have long argued that Western recognition of “Iran’s rights as an independent state”—including the right to enrich uranium on its own territory—is the only workable basis for successful nuclear diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.  But that reality runs up against the preferences of some close American allies—and of all those constituencies in the United States committed to the perpetuation of Washington’s imperial approach to the Middle East

Throughout his first term in office, President Barack Obama was unwilling to recognize Iran’s rights as an independent state—most notably with regard to uranium enrichment.  If nuclear diplomacy is to have a better chance of succeeding in his second term, Obama will have to display strategic vision, diplomatic acumen, and political courage in ways that have been almost wholly absent from his foreign policy so far

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett