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The Race for Iran

On U.S. Efforts to Take Away Iran’s Rights by (Unilaterally) Rewriting the NPT: And the Complicity of America’s Iran “Experts” in the Charade

One of the more striking passages in President Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly last month presented Obama’s view of Iran’s nuclear rights.  Specifically, the President noted, “We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United States is to see that we harness that power for peace.”    

This is a more restrictive formulation than Obama and senior officials in his administration have deployed in previous statements, which emphasized that Iran has a right to “pursue peaceful nuclear energy.”  In normal English usage, the verb “to pursue” implies that, in the official American view, Iran might at least have a right to generate its own “peaceful nuclear energy.”  By contrast, Obama’s more recent phrasing implies that, in Washington’s current reading, Iran does not even have a right to generate its own nuclear power, but may have to content itself with trying to “access to peaceful nuclear power” that is generated by others

Needless to say, all of this is far removed from Iran’s longstanding insistence on its right to enrich uranium if it chooses to do so.  And, of course, Iran has long recognized that, as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), it must exercise that right under international monitoring

Initially, even the George W. Bush administration acknowledged that there was, somewhere in a vague legal ether, an Iranian right to enrich—but it argued that Tehran had somehow managed to “forfeit” this right.  Such an argument did not persuade most of the lawyers working on the issue in the Bush administration, much less most of the other nations of the world.  Eventually, the Bush administration retreated to a rigid demand that the Islamic Republic obey Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend enrichment before the United States would negotiate with Tehran—and without ever stipulating that a negotiated settlement would include an explicit recognition of Iran’s nuclear rights.  Predictably, this stance was diplomatically dysfunctional. 

When the Obama administration came in, it dropped the Bush administration’s insistence on suspension as a precondition for negotiations.  But it has been even less willing than the Bush administration to acknowledge Iran’s nuclear rights—and it, too, has the diplomatic (non)results to show for its obtuseness.         

From a global perspective, the positions of the Bush and Obama administrations on Iran’s right to develop indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capabilities and to pursue internationally safeguarded enrichment of uranium on its own territory make the United States a real outlier.  This reality was underscored in August at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, convened in Tehran, where NAM members—including the vast majority of the world’s nation-states—strongly endorsed the Islamic Republic’s right to pursue uranium enrichment.  Although hardly covered in the American media, the NAM summit marked a significant international repudiation of U.S. policy regarding the nuclear rights of Iran and, by extension, other non-Western NPT signatories.    

In the United States, this prompted defenders of the Bush/Obama line to spring into action.  One of them, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, co-wrote a piece for the U.S. government-sponsored Iran Primer last month, see here, which argued that the NAM communique “misconstrues the NPT.”  This sparked a vigorous online exchange between Albright—who is not a lawyer or student of international legal regimes—and Daniel Joyner, professor at the University of Alabama’s School of Law and one of the legal academy’s most accomplished scholars of the NPT.  That exchange reveals much about the contribution of many Western Iran “experts” to America’s Iran debate. 

According to Albright and his co-author, “Under Article IV [of the NPT], Iran cannot claim the right to nuclear energy production—or a right to enrich at all—while under investigation for possible non-peaceful uses of these capabilities.  Iran’s right to nuclear energy is qualified—a long as there are no major lapses in its Article II obligations…the NAM communique failed to acknowledge the need for Iran to fully comply with the international treaty on nuclear weapons.  Iran tried to portray that the final communique represented a diplomatic victory for Tehran and its controversial nuclear program.  But the summit’s resolution instead undermined the Non-Aligned Movement’s credibility, since it demonstrated that developing nations cannot be counted on to deal seriously with nuclear nonproliferation issues.” 

Leaving aside the patronizing tone of the last sentence—in effect, Albright and his co-author are positing that responsible Americans and Europeans (the rightful masters of the universe) cannot possibly think non-Westerners are “dealing seriously” with important international issues unless those non-Westerners simply accept, uncritically, the views advanced by their Western superiors—this statement is wrong on several substantive points.  Among other things, it is wrong as an interpretation of the NPT and in its assertion that there have been “major lapses” in Iran’s Article II obligations.  These features prompted Daniel Joyner to offer the following observations on his blog, Arms Control Law, see here

“Why is it that in the nonproliferation area everyone, including engineers, physicists, chemists and general policy wonks, think they can do legal interpretation?  You won’t find me writing articles about the technical aspects of missile capabilities, or the internal physics of a warhead core.  I know these things are outside of my training and qualification to do.  But apparently everyone thinks they can do legal analysis.  With respect, I think David should stick to obsessing over satellite pictures of tarps at random military bases in Iran.” 

On our own, we found Joyner’s comment mildly amusing.  But it clearly touched a nerve in David Albright, see here, who responded with a remarkable broadside characterized by ad hominem invective and fallacious arguments from authority: 

“I have belatedly read Joyner’s rant about our Iran Primer article with amusement and likewise find his chorus of lackeys a pathetic bunch.  Now I understand that Joyner’s blogging is supposed to be an ego trip for him and a safe haven for commentators, but Joyner’s blogging is particularly egotistical and, with respect, off-the-wall.  In the comments and in Joyner’s writings, I can see the deep ignorance of the NPT.  I certainly see no need to revise our analysis and statements in our Iran Primer article.  We have consulted with many lawyers who find Joyner’s analysis deeply flawed and agenda driven…I would recommend that Joyner have his work reviewed by competent lawyers.  He would need to revise most of his work.” 

Joyner responded vigorously, see here, making the point, among his other rejoinders, that he has published two peer-reviewed books, with Oxford University Press, on interpreting the NPT.  But, for our purposes, the most important part of his response concerns the public posture adopted by too many Washington, DC-based policy “experts” and the motives for their adoption of such a posture.  Joyner’s analysis focuses on nonproliferation specialists, but, in our view, it also applies very well to many who claim expertise on other Iran-related issues: 

”A colleague in D.C. once said this to me about the U.S. nonproliferation epistemic community—and by this community we both meant the entirety of the various NGOs and think tanks and the few University based centers that focus on nonproliferation studies in the U.S.:  that the community is very D.C. centric, cliquish, incestuous and self-referential, to its detriment.  These words have really stuck with me, because I find them to be absolutely true, and both insightful and parsimonious as I’ve observed the community over the years.

I would take it even further and say that in addition, in my opinion, the whole U.S. based nonproliferation experts community—with few exception—is systematically biased toward support of USG positions on all the top nonproliferation issues.  They maintain an essentially common narrative and set of emphases that is in line with, and that provides support for, the narrative and emphases of the USG, with only the smallest amounts of quibbling around the edges (Albright will talk all day long about his “aluminum tubes” work).  I think that there is in the work of the U.S. nonproliferation epistemic community far too little real, independent evaluation and criticism of USG positions.  As I see it, the U.S. nonproliferation community almost acts as a second wave of apologists for U.S. policy, after the USG itself—though it sometimes shrouds this effort in a lot of technical and sometimes academic-looking jargon.  But in the end what the U.S. nonproliferation community ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT DO is serve in the role of an independent, rigorous, analytical check on USG nonproliferation positions, as it could and should do, and as the nongovernmental nonproliferation community in other countries does.  And I think there are some clear reasons for this.  Much more so than in other countries, the members of the U.S. based nonproliferation community tend, with very few exceptions, to

1)  have been employed by the USG in the past;

2) want to be employed by the USG in the future;

3) be funded by or hope to be funded by the USG; and/or

4) want to maintain the access and good favor they have with USG officials, for the sake of information and for the sake of invitations to cool events, etc. 

Basically what I’m saying is that they are biased towards the positions of the USG, because of their overly close personal and institutional associations with the USG, and because they see their own professional success as being tied to the favor of the USG.

I think there’s also a significant degree of media whorishness at work here as well.  As a colleague once wrote to me while we were discussing this topic:  ‘I think there is another—very important—aspect you may be missing that may even over-ride the ones you mention:  aside from taking USG positions, the non-proliferation community likes the high-media profile allotted it, when it loudly tut-tuts 3rd world nuclear arms capacities (or enemies of the west’s nuclear arms capacities), whether or not such capacities are consistent w/ NPT and/or CSAs.  People like being quoted, appearing on TV, and generally feeling important.  The Non-proliferation community “loves” the attention and basks in this glow, and though they would “privately” acknowledge that Iran is not so far outside bounds (if at all), they nonetheless pass on statements and innuendo to media indicating the alleged dangers and thus wittingly or not, fan the flames.  Others like ISIS simply pass on opinions dressed as expert findings.  It just would not do for Non-proliferation types to tell the media:  “well, no, Iran’s program is actually not a threat to world peace yet” like the DNI did.’” 

Not surprisingly, Joyner sees David Albright as embodying this description, as he points out in criticizing some of Albright’s analysis on Iran’s nuclear activities: 

“All [Albright] really does is make provocative speculations about what “could” be happening at locations in Iran, and what “maybe” Iran will do in the future.  And it’s so clear that he’s working on the basis of a set of unproven, but firmly held assumptions about Iran—the same assumptions he had about Iraq, for which his work has been widely discredited—that they have a nuclear weapons program, and he is ginning up all the evidence he can that might support that assumption, speculating about what that evidence may mean, but only in a direction that would tend to support his preexisting assumption.  There’s no rigor here in thoroughly considering and evaluating other possible explanations for the same observations—like a real academic or even a real, quality NGO analysis would.  Maybe it’s because David has never done PhD level academic work, and so he doesn’t understand what is expected of quality scientific analysis.  But this is an assumption-driven piece of provocative speculation that serves only to provide support for the USG’s contentions about Iran’s nuclear program.  That’s just what he infamously did in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq war too. That’s not rigorous and independent analysis. That’s biased and low quality work…

I know very well how the D.C. nonproliferation crowd feels about me…They think my work is pro-Iranian and generally pro-developing country, and anti-U.S.  They say I’m biased and agenda driven…Am I personally sympathetic to or biased towards the policies of the Iranian government? Absolutely not…However, do I think that the legal arguments of the current government of Iran deserve a fair and independent and rigorous hearing and analysis by the international community, just as the legal arguments of any other government do?  Yes I do, for many reasons, not least of which is the prevention of unnecessary and unjust economic sanctions and possibly war against the Iranian people, and the fairness and perceived legitimacy and relevance of international law.  I don’t see anyone else stepping up to make these arguments, and make sure that they are taken seriously in the West, and that’s why I keep doing it.

Am I sympathetic to developing countries’ positions in the nuclear energy area generally?  Yes I am.  I admit that freely.  And it’s because I genuinely think that they are bullied by the West in the nuclear area, as in many other areas, for a whole range of political and economic reasons, and that the legal advisors of Western governments have concocted erroneous legal arguments to give perceived credibility to these policies.  I can’t change the policies and the politics they’re based on, but I think there is a real need to lend whatever professional abilities I have to making sure that their legal arguments are made at a high level of competence and sophistication, and are given due consideration by the international community.  Again, no one else seems to be doing this in the West, and so I keep doing it.  But I maintain that my legal analysis is independent and essentially objective, and that I follow the proper analysis of a legal source to its most persuasively correct conclusion, no matter what that conclusion is.

I think that the U.S. nonproliferation community, linked so closely as it is to the USG itself, generally takes a negative view of my work for a number of reasons.  One of the primary reasons is that they are so used to being able to effectively tell the rest of the world what to think about the NPT regime, and how to interpret the law associated with it, that when someone independent comes along and poses a genuine intellectual challenge to the warped and USG driven legal views of the NPT regime that they’ve been spouting for decades, they genuinely don’t know what to do about it.  With the errors and intellectual bankruptcy of their legal arguments laid bare, they make only feeble attempts to defend themselves substantively because, honestly, they don’t have very good substantive arguments to make and they never have.  The only argument they have left to make is to argue in desperation that the challenger is biased and agenda driven—which is in the end the ultimate irony, because it’s precisely their own bias and USG-centric agenda that has made their arguments so weak, and has provided the legal errors that the challenger now corrects, to the persuasion of everyone else in the world.” 

Our compliments to Prof. Joyner. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu on the Iranian Nuclear Issue at the UN General Assembly

Photo by Martin Meissner / AP

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York this week, for his valedictory appearances as President of the Islamic Republic before the United Nations General Assembly.  He gave several significant addresses, multiple interviews, and even held a session with a small group of Americans who have written or are writing books about Iran, in which we took part. 

Although, as usual, Ahmadinejad had a rich and multifaceted set of messages that he worked to convey, media and public attention focused on his observations about Israel and the threat of an Israeli or U.S. attack on the Islamic Republic.  On this topic, Ahmadinejad had two main points. 

First, Israel is at a strategic “dead end,” or, as he explained in greater detail, see here,  

“Fundamentally, we do not take seriously the threats of the Zionists.  We believe the Zionists see themselves at a dead end and the way to find an adventure to get out of this dead end.  While we are fully ready to defend ourselves, we do not take these threats seriously.”     

Second, the reason why Israel finds itself in a dead end is not because of the Islamic Republic and its nuclear activitiesIt is because of the mobilization of Arab and other Muslim populations to demand more participatory political orders in their countries

Although this was surely not his intent, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu confirmed Ahmadinejad’s assessment when Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly later in the week, see here.  The heart of Netanyahu’s address, of course, was his remarks about the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program.  By now, most people who might read this have, we are sure, already seen footage of Netanyahu deploying his Looney Tunes-like drawing of a cylindrical bomb with a hand-lit fuse, 25 minutes into the video linked above.  (For those who were too dumbstruck by the absurdity of his visual aid to take in easily its intended message, Netanyahu pointed out, “This is a bomb.  This is a fuse.”)  Bottom line, Netanyahu holds that the United States should commit to bombing Iranian nuclear facilities before the International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has stockpiled enough uranium enriched the near-20 percent level so that, if it reconfigured its centrifuges and put its 20-percent enriched uranium back through those centrifuges, it might be able to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material to fabricate a single nuclear weapon

Where to begin deconstructing all of this?  Simply as a technical matter, Netanyahu’s analysis is deeply flawed on multiple levels

–Netanyahu claims that, once Iran reaches his suggested red line, Israel, the United States, and others cannot rely on their intelligence services to detect an Iranian move to turn near-20 percent enriched uranium into weapons-grade fissile material.  But, by Netanyahu’s own testimony, his analysis of Iran’s fuel-cycle program is “not based on secret information.  It’s not based on military intelligence.  It’s based on public reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency.” 

–But it is also these public reports which will tell Netanyahu and others when the Islamic Republic has accumulated enough 20-percent enriched uranium to meet his red line.  And in order to blow past this red line, Iran would have to take steps—breaking seals on IEAE-inventoried uranium stockpiles, reconfiguring centrifuges to produce weapons-grade fissile material, or moving stockpiles out of IEAE-monitored facilities—that the IAEA (not U.S. or Israeli intelligence) would detect. 

–Furthermore, Netanyahu said nothing to demonstrate that, even if Iran were to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear device, it has either the intention or the capability to weaponize the material—which is a considerably more complicated task than just stuffing highly-enriched uranium into the Prime Minister’s cartoon bomb and lighting the fuse.        

Strategically, as we’ve argued before, see here, there is no way that a mythical nuclear-armed Iran, much less an Iran enriching uranium at well below weapons grade, poses an “existential threat” to Israel.  In New York, Netanyahu made much of the Islamic Republic’s alleged irrationality, even citing Bernard Lewis that “for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.”  But countless senior Israeli officials—including the commander of the Israel Defense Forces, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, including even Netanyahu himself, see here and here—have acknowledged, on the record, that it is highly unlikely that Iranian leaders would use nuclear weapons.  (For the record, Iranian leaders have said repeatedly over many years that they don’t want nuclear weapons and, in the assessment of both U.S. and Israeli intelligence services, they have not taken a decision to produce them.  In fact, we believe that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, has taken a clear decision not to do so.) 

The real existential threat to Israel comes from what Israelis see going on around them right now, and which Ahmadinejad so aptly pointed out—the mobilization of Arab and other Muslim populations to demand more participatory political orders.  For as Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, and other Iranian leaders understand very well, the governments that grow out of this demand will not succumb to American pressure cum blandishments to “make peace” with Israel, even as it continues to occupy Arab land, suppress Arab populations, and flout international law in its grossly disproportionate applications of military force around the regionSuch governments will insist, before they can accept Israel, that it must change its policies in fundamental ways—ways so fundamental that most Israeli elites would see it as an abandonment of the Zionist project.  And over time—perhaps measured in decades rather the merely years—that will persuade most of the rest of the world to demand basic changes in Israel, too

Like President Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly (which we will discuss in greater depth in our next post), Netanyahu expressed confidence that “modernity” will triumph over “medievalism.”  But the success of the Zionist project rests ultimately on the ability of Israeli governments to tell Israeli Jews and those who might come to Israel from elsewhere that it is utterly feasible to live surrounded by hundreds of millions of people who do not accept Israel as a political orderIsraeli governments have to be able to tell their target audiences that they do not have to be concerned about the long-term implausibility of such a proposition—because Israel, with its superior military forces and with the vast power of the United States deployed to keep genuinely independent power centers from emerging in the region, has its strategic situation under control

Today, Israel clearly does not have its strategic situation under control.  Indeed, Israel has not faced a strategic situation this challenging since the 1950s—the last time it faced the prospect of genuinely independent political orders emerging in Middle East that would refuse to accept an aggressive, territorially acquisitive interloper in their midst.  Now, superior military forces no longer suffice to keep the regional balance tilted so overwhelmingly in Israel’s favorAnd the power of the United States to shape the Middle East’s strategic environment is hardly what it once seemed to be—and is shrinking virtually by the day.           

At their root, of course, Israel’s problems are of Israel’s making.  It would be disastrous for the United States to go along with the idea of using military power to enforce a technically and strategically nonsensical red line on Iran’s nuclear activities.  Such an attack would have no legitimacy:  there would be no United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing it, and outside of Israel, Britain, and a few other subservient European states, no one would support the action. 

–A U.S.-initiated war on the Islamic Republic would do so much damage to America’s long-run strategic position that it would make the Iraq debacle, in comparison, look almost like a success. 

–And if we think anti-Americanism in the Muslim world—indeed, in most of the non-Western world—is at dangerously high levels now, imagine what those levels will be after the United States bombs Iran over nuclear activities that Arab populations, other Muslim populations, and other non-Western populations overwhelmingly see as legitimate.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


By Delisting the MEK, the Obama Administration is Taking the Moral and Strategic Bankruptcy of America’s Iran Policy to a New Low

The MEK's Massoud Rajavi Emulates His Patron, Saddam Hussein

The U.S. Department of State took the moral and strategic bankruptcy of America’s Iran policy to a new low today, by notifying Congress that the Obama administration intends to remove the mojahedin-e khalq (MEK) from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). 

At a macro level, we are disdainful—even scornful—of the U.S. government’s lists of both FTOs and state sponsors of terrorism.  We have seen too many times over the years just how cynically American administrations have manipulated these designations, adding and removing organizations and countries for reasons that have little or nothing to do with designees’ actual involvement in terrorist activity.  So, for example, after Saddam Husayn invaded the fledgling Islamic Republic in 1980—on September 22, no less—and starting killing large numbers of innocent Iranians, the Reagan administration (which came to office in January 1981) found a way to remove Iraq from the state sponsors list, in order to remove legal restrictions prohibiting the U.S. government from helping Saddam prosecute his war of aggression as robustly as the administration wanted.  (During that war, the MEK—after having tried but failed to bring down the Islamic Republic through a bloody campaign of terrorist bombings and assassinations conducted against the new Iranian government’s upper echelons—ended up collaborating with an Iraqi government regularly carrying out chemical weapons attacks against targets, civilian as well as military, inside Iran.)  But, when the same Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration couldn’t get Iraq back on the state sponsors list fast enough.  We are very skeptical that Saddam’s ties to groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations changed all that much during this period. 

Yet, precisely because we know how thoroughly corrupt and politicized these designations really are, we recognize their significance as statements of U.S. policy.  Today, the Obama administration made a truly horrible statement about U.S. policy toward Iran

The statement is horrible even if one wants to believe that FTO designations have some kind of procedural and evidentiary integrity about them.  (We don’t, but we also recognize that letting go of illusions is often not easy.)  Just this year, U.S. intelligence officials told high-profile media outlets that the MEK is actively collaborating with Israeli intelligence to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, see here; Iranian officials have made the same charge.  Since when did murdering unarmed civilians (and, in some instances, members of their families as well) on public streets in the middle of a heavily populated urban area (Tehran) not meet even the U.S. government’s own professed standard for terrorism?  Of course, one might rightly point out that the United States is responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent civilians across the Middle East.  But Washington generally strives to maintain the fiction that it did not intend for those innocents to die as a (direct and foreseeable) consequence of U.S. military operations and sanctions policies.  (You know, the United States didn’t really mean for those people to die, but, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said, “Stuff happens.”)  Here, the Obama administration is taking an organization that the U.S. government knows is directly involved in the murder of innocent people and giving this group Washington’s “good housekeeping seal of approval.”       

But, to invoke Talleyrand’s classic observation that a certain action was “worse than a crime—it was a mistake,” delisting the MEK is not just a moral abomination; it is a huge strategic and policy blunder.  It is hard to imagine how the Obama administration could signal more clearly that, even after the President’s presumptive reelection, it has no intention of seeking a fundamentally different sort of relationship with the Islamic Republic—which would of course require the United States to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity representing legitimate national interests. 

Count on this:  once the MEK is formally off the FTO list—a legally defined process that will take a few months to play out—Congress will be appropriating money to support the monafeqin as the vanguard of a new American strategy for regime change in Iran.  In the 1990s, similar enthusiasm for Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress—who were about as unpopular among Iraqis as the MEK is among Iranians—led to President Clinton’s signing of the Iraq Liberation Act, which paved the way for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.  The chances for such a scenario to play out with regard to Iran over the next few years—with even more disastrous consequences for America’s strategic and moral standing—got a lot higher today.        

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Flynt Leverett on the Real Drivers of Anti-American Protests in the Arab and Muslim Worlds

Flynt appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story late last week to discuss “What Is Fueling Anti-American Protests?” across the Muslim world, see here.  He also taped a video, posted on the Web sites for Penn State’s School of International Affairs and Dickinson School of Law, on the same subject, see here

As Hillary noted in one of her media appearances last week, see here, Americans “have not even begun to grapple with the enormity of the challenge we face [in the Middle East] as countries become more politically participatory, and people have a voice.”  In his appearances, Flynt examined some of the reasons for Americans’ reluctance in this regard.  As he explained on the Penn State video,  

“There is a tendency among Americans to want to see this as Arabs, Muslims reacting against various aspects of American culture—American liberalism, gender equality, freedom of religion, these kinds of things.  And so when we see manifestations of anti-Americanism in this part of the world, many Americans, as a kind of default setting, want to attribute it to this.  I think that what public opinion polls and other more objective indicators show is that anti-American sentiment in this part of the world is very, very much a reaction to particular policies, particular actions that the United States undertakes.” 

Thus, as Flynt argues on Al Jazeera,

“If it hadn’t been this film, it would have been something else that triggered an outburst—a manifestation of very, very deep-seated, longstanding resentment in Arab and Muslim societies about many important aspects of American foreign policy toward the region.  When Americans think about this, they will tend to want to say that this a cultural issue—that there is something about Islam or that Arabs are insufficiently modernized to be able to keep something like this film in proper perspective.  I think that it’s Americans who are having a cultural problem here, and who aren’t really able to keep things like this film in proper perspective.  The proper perspective, at least from the vantage of the Muslim world, is that the United States has been, for many years now, an aggressive and a repressive force in the region.  That’s the way the United States is perceived; every serious public opinion poll in the region would show that.  And until the United States is prepared to come to terms with that reality, its own strategic position in this region is going to continue to decline precipitously.” 

Reflecting what we believe is the mainstream view among American elites, one of the other panelists, Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East—counters that President Obama and his administration “fell that they have tried very hard, actually, to improve relations with the Muslim world.”  While Michele does not “necessarily think that the administration has done everything right in trying to do that,” nevertheless, “in all of this, the element of opposition to U.S. policies is probably the least.  This is very much parallel to the Danish cartoon [controversy] a few years ago…Was that fuelled by an underlying hatred of Danish foreign policy in the Middle East?  No, it wasn’t.  It was the specific perceived offense to Islam”—along with, she argues, Salafis maneuvering to upstage more moderate Islamist elements and security services that haven’t been “reformed and stood up again”—that are driving the current wave of unrest. 

Flynt takes on these arguments, starting with the notion that “Obama really tried to put things on a better footing in the Muslim world.”  There were, he reminds, “a couple of high-profile speeches in Obama’s first year in office.  In terms of his policies in the region, he is basically pursuing George W. Bush’s policies in the region—except on some things like the use of drones to kill people in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, he has doubled down on the Bush administration’s policies.  And polls would show that, after a very brief bump in U.S. standing after Obama was elected, people saw what his administration actually did, and the popularity of the U.S. is, by some polls, even lower today than it was when Bush left office.” 

Flynt holds that the current wave of anti-American unrest “is not fundamentally about Salafis or unreformed security services.”  He notes that “public opinion in the Muslim world is probably not that radically different today than five years ago”; in that regard, a context of intense popular resentment over U.S. (and Western) foreign policy in the Middle East is probably as important a factor for understanding the unrest over the notorious Danish cartoons as it is for understanding the current wave of anti-American protests. 

Flynt suggests that what is different today, “in countries touched by the Arab spring and in other countries in the Muslim world, is that public opinion matters more…If you have any kind of movement in these societies toward political structures that are more reflective [of their populations’ views], that is guaranteed to get you political orders—governments—that are going to be, for perfectly legitimate reasons, less enthusiastic, to say the least, about strategic cooperation with the United States.”  And that “is a losing proposition for the United States.”   

We close by noting a particularly timely observation from the other panelist on the Inside Story episode, Oxford University’s Tariq Ramadan.  In considering “the perception of American policy” in the Muslim world, Prof. Ramadan warns against forgetting “what is said today and what Israel is saying about Iran…If something happened, after what we are witnessing in the region now, with an attack or Netanyahu going too far in this direction, no one can predict what will be the consequences.”  Americans would do well to ponder those words as they consider how to react to Netanyahu’s statements on American television yesterday, urging them to vote for a president who will draw clear “red lines” regarding Iran’s continued development of (internationally supervised) nuclear fuel cycle capabilities—and enforce them with military force, if Tehran should continue to exercise its legal rights.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Hillary appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story and MSNBC’s The Ed Show this week to discuss the significance and political fallout from the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi; see here for the Inside Story episode and here for The Ed Show segment.  (Both videos begin with roughly 5-minute-long set-ups before the substantive panels with Hillary.)

We begin by noting our sadness over the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the others who were killed at the consulate in Benghazi.  As Hillary recounts, she knew and worked with Chris Stevens during her service in the State Department; he was very highly regarded, professionally and personally, among his colleagues.  In the United States, much of the early discussion about the attack in Benghazi has focused on a question that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself laid out:  “How can this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” 

In fact, it is not so hard to understand how “this”—along with the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, subsequent protests at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Sanaa, Khartoum and across the region, and myriad other manifestations of resentment against the United States in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds—could happen.  But most Americans don’t really want to understand it.  For, as Hillary underscores on The Ed Show, “the critical issue here is the deep-seated resentment that people have for U.S. policy throughout the region…Hatred and resentment for U.S. policy are the heart of the problem here.  Communities throughout the Middle East are angry.” 

This reality is now crashing in on U.S. ambitions in the Middle East every day.  Yet, as Hillary notes on MSNBC, Americans “have not even begun to grapple with the enormity of the challenge we face as countries become more politically participatory, and people have a voice.” 

Over the past few days, we’ve heard more than a few politicians and commentators recommend cutting off aid, or demand that Egyptian President Morsi adopt a tougher rhetorical stance against “extremist” discourse in his own Muslim Brotherhood if he wants a coveted meeting with President Obama.  Against this, Hillary counters that “it a fantasy to think that [the United States] has cards to play,” with which it can leverage key local actors.  “The President of Egypt, before he comes to the United States, his first trips were to China and Iran…The train has left the station in these countries, and unless [Washington] figures out how to adapt, [its] strategic position in the Middle East and, therefore, globally will continue to erode.” 

So far, though, the United States is clearly not adapting.  Why are Americans so reluctant to grapple with Middle Eastern reality?  Hillary addresses this critical question on Al Jazeera:   

There’s a really fundamental flaw in U.S. strategic policy…and it has to do with empire.  We look at each country, at each place, and we see the expatriates that we want to see in the cafés in Paris, who parrot our line about secular liberalism, and we arm, fund, and train them to go back and, in effect, impose a political order on those societies that have very different histories, characters, cares, and concerns…Those expatriates we listen to repeatedly—in Iraq, Iran, Libya, everywhere—we listen to them not because we’re stupid but because we have a very determined focus for dominance.” 

Especially in a political season, American elites do not seem at all inclined toward soul-searching about their country’s foreign policy after the events of the past few days.  Much has been made of Mitt Romney’s “shoot first, aim later” (to use President Obama’s phrase) comments on events in Libya and Egypt.  But Hillary points out on Al Jazeera that other prominent Republicans—for example, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa—have gone even further than Governor Romney, arguing that President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world during his first year in office, most notably through major addresses delivered in Istanbul and Cairo, was a “mistake” that showed “weakness.” 

This is, Hillary notes, the “wrong critique.”  For Obama hardly fulfilled the promise that some believed was embodied in his 2009 Istanbul and Cairo speeches—or his campaign pledge not just to end the Iraq war but also to end the “mindset” that had gotten the United States into that strategically and morally failed project.  Rather the Obama administration “walked back completely” from those commitments.  The real critique—which Romney, of course, won’t put forward—is “why is the Obama administration really so dishonest in its policies, and how could people in the Middle East really take America’s word seriously as a constructive force.”  Until Americans and the politicians can address that, they never will understand “what is the reason” for Middle Easterners’ anger.            

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett