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

The Race for Iran


As we follow the NPT Review Conference in New York and the enormous salience of the Iranian nuclear issue there, it is useful to consider some recent observations about the Iranian case by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s former Director General, Mohammed ElBaradei. Baradei was in the Boston area last week, where, among other things, he took part in an extended Q&A session with Graham Allison; the event was hosted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Baradei talked about a range of topics—e.g., his difficulties with the George W. Bush Administration over Iraqi WMD (final score: Baradei and the IAEA, right; Vice President Cheney, wrong as could be), the illegality of coercive regime change, and prospects for a world without nuclear weapons—all in an extremely interesting and insightful way.

We thought he was exceptionally sharp on the Iranian nuclear issue, which took up most of the discussion. Here are some of his main points on this topic:

–The George W. Bush Administration missed real opportunities to negotiate meaningful limits on the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment infrastructure. Indeed, but for its unwillingness to deal seriously with a member of the “axis of evil”, the Bush Administration could have won Iran’s agreement to limit its centrifuge program to “laboratory scale”, rather than the industrial scale program we see taking shape today.

–Iran wants a “nuclear weapons capability”—which is not the same as actual nuclear weapons—to be taken seriously as a regional power by the United States. (Baradei says that Iranian officials have told him many times they have no problem with the United States as a global power, but want the United States to recognize Iran’s status as a regional power. Baradei also says that developing a “nuclear weapons capability”—again, not the same as actual nuclear weapons—is “kosher” under the NPT.)

–Baradei believes there is still a deal to be made with regard to refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). More specifically, he argues that storing Iranian low-enriched uranium under IAEA supervision in Iran pending delivery of finished fuel for the TRR—as Tehran has proposed—should be acceptable as the basis for a deal.

–While the Iranian nuclear issue is being handled through the P-5+1, the nuclear issue is fundamentally a U.S.-Iranian problem. Only the United States can offer the Islamic Republic the security assurances that it needs. Conversely, only Iran can help the United States stabilize key zones of conflict in the region—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine.

–At its root, the Iranian nuclear issue is about the balance of power in the Middle East—and, more specifically, the balance of power between Israel and Iran. Ultimately, the balance of power in the Middle East can only be stabilized through the creation of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region—including Israel.

To see a video of the event, click here.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



  1. Arnold Evans says:

    Wow. I just noticed that last statement from James. Wow.

  2. James Canning says:


    I doubt that there is any person in Jordan better able to handle the challenges at hand, than King Abdullah II. As I mentioned, I also admired King Hussein (a friend of friends of mine).

    I think it was a tragedy for Iraq, that the monarchy was overthrown. A monarch can provide unity to disparate groups that an elected politican cannot match.

  3. Arnold Evans says:

    James, you cannot possibly think that the process that produced the rulers of Saudi Arabia or of Jordan were designed to elevate the most talented politician in the country to leadership.

    Possibly, the way it’s possible to win powerball, the leader of Saudi Arabia may happen to be the country’s most innately effective politician, but there is no reason to think that would be the case. Obama has demonstrated that he is in an important sense the US’ most effective eligible politician by winning a political contest that at various levels was open to a large number of Americans. China does not have elections, but Hu Jintao is, by winning political contests that were open to a huge pool of contestants within the larger Chinese political system, China’s most effective eligible politician.

    The Jordanian and Saudi kings have not won such contests. If you like either, I have no problem with that. The winner of Jordanian or Saudi political contests probably would be less palatable to you (a non-Jordanian, non-Arabian), but would certainly both represent the sensibilities of their countries better and would be more effective at advancing their countries’ interests.

  4. James Canning says:


    What similarity is there between King Abdullah II of Jordan, and G W Bush? Bush was an arrogant ignoramus, and proud of his extreme ignorance. Jordan’s king tries to comprehend the relevant facts, and make cogent arguments for the best way forward. Abdullah is more the opposite of Bush, than the reverse.

    And what specifically do you find unwelcome in the king of Saudi Arabia? He too seeks peace in the Middle East, and proposes what he thinks are the best ways to achieve it.

  5. Arnold Evans says:

    China does not have popular participation in its political system. That is one element of effective governing systems that China lacks and it means that China is forgoing an established means for creating a feeling of governmental legitimacy.

    What China does have is a competitive political system. China is not ruled by the son of China’s last ruler, but by the winner of a political contest that, considering all of its levels, included potentially a very large number of people.

    China’s leader is, as well as can be practically determined, the most effective, the most talented politician in China which is a very big thing. The same can be said for Russia’s leader, for Turkey’s leader, for the current leader of the United States, (though not for the guy who was the son of a previous president, and it would not be true if the wife of a previous president had won).

    This can not be said for Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It also cannot be said for Syria. The inherited dictatorships of Jordan and Saudi Arabia produce the Jordanian and Arabian equivalents of George W. Bush. Some people like them, but nobody seriously believes they are the most talented leaders their countries could produce, and the countries are worse off for that.

    Egypt and Palestine actually have contests in which parties hostile to the interests of the country have high degrees of influence. If the United States was an important factor in deciding the leader of China, to say nothing of if that power was in the hands of Japan or Taiwan, China would consistently be poorly led and be a much less formidable actor in pursuit of its interests than its potential. That is the situation in Palestine and Egypt.

    It is a fairly safe assumption that Syria will evolve into a democracy more quickly than Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Egypt because Syria’s backers do not depend on Syria pursuing unpopular policies as a condition of their support. Iraq has just proven that popular participation in the Middle East does not produce pro-American governments even when the election is held under direct US occupation! Popular elections will leave Syria in the anti-colonialist camp just as reliably as elections in Lebanon, non-coerced elections in Palestine or elections in Iraq.

  6. James Canning says:


    Do you regard China as a dictatorship, or as a plutocracy, or perhaps a combination of both? Obviously it is not Switzerland.

  7. James Canning says:


    Why do you describe Jordan as a dictatorship maintained by the US? I confess to being a great admirer of the late King Hussein of Jordan, and I also think highly of his son.

    Spain was stable for decades under Franco, and the dictatorship eventually was succeeded peacefully by a constitutional monarchy. This was an admirable outcome surely.

  8. kooshy says:

    Arnold is right all the politics now are concentrated on the nations and not the governments (rulers) like what Tip O’Neill said “all the politics is local “ and that is what is causing the disturbance in US regional politics, Egypt is a good example we should expect some more changes in the balance of power in the region in next few years.

  9. Arnold Evans says:

    In the post WWII, post colonial world, dictatorships are inherently unstable. They generally produce poor leadership and do not generate legitimacy as well as leadership structures that contain a popular participatory element as well as competition in which more talented leaders are able to prevail.

    The pro-US dictatorships of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in addition to being dictatorships, have effectively aligned themselves with Israel despite the fact that poll after poll shows Israel to be very unpopular with every non-Jewish population group in the Middle East.

    Iran isn’t a threat because it is Iran, but any example of a prosperous non-US dominated country in the regime makes maintaining these dictatorships effectively as colonial subjects more difficult. Iran certainly is not a threat to the people of Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Egypt, but the pro-US dictatorships ruling them are in a fundamentally brittle position that depends on a lack of any even moderately powerful rival.

    Israel does not accept the offers made by Syria and the Palestinians because Israel calculates that accepting those offers would make its strategic situation more difficult. Israel’s calculations are probably right. A fully sovereign Palestine easily could render Israel non-viable.

    Like the rest of the pro-US colonial structure, Israel’s position is fundamentally brittle and there are extreme requirements for its strategic viability that cannot be maintained with a prosperous and engaged regional country that is outside of pro-Israel influence.

  10. James Canning says:


    Why are you apparently so hostile to the government of Jordan? King Abdullah II is diligent, well-informed, and very active in the effort to achieve peace in the Middle East.

    Why do you think Iran poses a “threat” to Saudi Arabia? The Saudis themselves say that the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is a much larger concern of theirs, than anything emanating from Iran.

  11. James Canning says:


    Hamas offered Israel 50-year truces, several times. Based on pre-1967 borders.

    Syria has offered peace to Israel, year in and year out, for more than a decade. Even today, the Turkish foreign minister urged Israel to deal with Syria. Turkey wants Israel to end the occupation of the Golan Heights and the West Bank. Is Turkey a “threat” to Israel? Why is would a rich and strong Iran be a “threat” to Israel?

  12. Arnold Evans says:

    The Palestinians have made clear they will accept Israel within its pre-1967 borders.

    “The Palestinians” meaning Abbas after he lost the elections but refuses to relinquish power? Meaning the people of Gaza given that the alternative is literally having their food supply limited by Israel?

    This type of coerced acceptance can work with a hampered Iran, along with most of Israel’s neighbors ruled by pro-American dictators. It would not be viable with a powerful Iran.

  13. James Canning says:

    Arnold Evans,

    You claim that”an Iran that meets its full potential would render Israel non-viable as a Jewish majority state maintained against the wishes of the Palestinians.” I strongly disagree.

    Iran has clearly indicated a number of times it will accept Israel within its “pre-1967” borders, provided the Palestinians do too. The Palestinians have made clear they will accept Israel within its pre-1967 borders.

  14. James Canning says:


    I agree it was foolish for the US (and France, the UK and others) to walk out of the General Assembly during Ahamdinejad’s speech. Predictable stupidity, sadly.

  15. James Canning says:

    Bravo, ElBaradei! He also spoke at Tufts U in Boston. The arrogant ignoramus in the White House spurned Russia’s effort to obtain American backing for the Russian plan to keep control of the nuclear fuel cycle, for the LEU to be used in the Iranian nuclear power plants.

  16. Alan says:

    Arnold – I understand the disappointment, but I suppose El Baradei is in a very strange position now. If he truly does intend to run for President, he wants to do so without a revolution. Somehow he has to devise an approach that permits a comparatively quiet political transition in Egypt away from Mubarak and the NDP. I can’t see how he can do it, but if he is to try, I imagine he needs to keep all the balls in the air. There seems little doubt that he is one of the very, very few Egyptians who has the international standing to pull something off.

  17. Rehmat says:

    ElBaradie tols Guardian a few month ago that the popularity in the Middle East of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, should be seen as message to the West that its “policy is not reaching out to the people. The policy should be: ‘We care about you, we care about your welfare, we care about your human rights.’”


  18. kooshy says:

    Here is the reaction by the foreign minister of Indonesia president of NPT review and the country which Mr. Obama as boy went to school there, it was a clear sad day for American foreign policy

    Indonesia on US-Iran spat
    The foreign minister of Indonesia, which belongs to the non-aligned movement, also attended the opening session of the UN conference reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
    Marty Natalegawa told Al Jazeera that what is needed now is “more communication and dialogue”.
    And while stressing that the Obama administration has been “going all out” to have communication with Iran, he questioned whether the US and other Western powers could have handled their interaction with Iran at the meeting “in a better way” (04 May 2010).

  19. kooshy says:


    You got it right, to the point a good analysis

  20. kooshy says:

    I was just reading an intresting comment in one of Iranian weblogs dealing with Ahmadinijad’s speech today at UN translation is

    “By walking out of the UN assembly hall during the Ahmadinijad’s speech at UN today the Obama government and the Americans are proving to the world how much they care for free speech, they are showing to everyone that they are coming short”

  21. Arnold Evans says:

    I’m very disappointed in ElBaradei that he is not more vocal in pointing out the relationship between Israel via the United States and the Mubarak dictatorship. The over 60 million people of Egypt will not be able to hold their government accountable to their concerns until the United States changes its regional priorities.

    The problem is not the office of the president, but that most Americans do not care about Egypt’s government and the few that do are disproportionately Israel-firsters who, like Flynt Leverett, are happy with Mubarak’s dictatorship because it is friendly with Israel – even going as far as hoping for an outcome like that to prevail in Iran.

    This American sense of priorities is violently at odds with American values but will not change unless it is confronted. ElBaradei is in a unique position to confront the US cultural support for Egyptian dictatorship and fails to, which is nearly unforgivable.

    He is right about the nuclear issue truly being about the regional balance between Iran and Israel – if balance is the word, an Iran that meets its full potential would render Israel non-viable as a Jewish majority state maintained against the wishes of the Palestinians.

    It is not clear that dictatorships such as those the US needs in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia could survive long with an independent Iran that is not being actively smothered by the United States and its allies.

    A realignment with Iran means either Iran going back to its 1978 foreign policy – which essentially means somehow a new Shah coming to power, an Iranian Sadat to whom US support is more important than the support of the Iranian people – or it means the United States re-evaluating the idea that a Jewish majority homeland for about 5 million Jewish people in Palestine takes moral precedence over the hundreds of millions of non-Jews in the region who have to live under dictators like Mubarak, Abbas or Abdullah, or face permanent sanctions and economic sabotage like Iran, Syria and Gaza, or direct US occupation like Iraq and Afghanistan for the Jewish state to be viable.

    If the United States is to decide that the 5 million Jewish people of Israel do not outweigh the 60 million people of Egypt, ElBaradei could and should play in important role in causing the US to take a second look.