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Flynt Leverett: I think that the Nuclear Posture Review that came out earlier this week needs to be seen as a very imperfect and, in some important respects, very badly flawed product of an effort which originally had, I think, a very positive intention, namely, an intention on the part of the Obama administration to reduce significantly the roles that nuclear weapons play in America’s defense posture. Now, I think, for many in the arms control community, many in the foreign policy community more generally — I would certainly count myself in this camp — I think the correct answer, the correct way to do this, was to take a posture which says simply that the United States has nuclear weapons in order to deter the use of nuclear weapons against the United States and certain designated allies. Period. And you could relate that to President Obama’s commitment in his Prague speech last year to working toward a world in which eventually we would have no nuclear weapons at all, but in the meantime, while we’re working toward that end, the Untied States has nuclear weapons only to deter the use of nuclear weapons against the United States and its closest allies. The administration in the document that came out earlier this week took some steps in that direction, but — I think for entirely other political and symbolic reasons — they felt like they needed to use the occasion to show that they were being tough on Iran and North Korea.
So, they put this very curious language in the statement that says the United States will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state that is in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It doesn’t say anything about who gets to determine compliance and non-compliance. And in this context I’m particularly struck that over the last few weeks both Secretary Clinton and our ambassador to the IAEA Mr. Davies have made statements in which they are no longer just saying that Iran is not in compliance with certain Security Council resolutions regarding Iranian enrichment — they are saying that Iran is not in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, in that context, for the administration to come out and say, as a matter of policy, we reserve the right to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states which are not in compliance with the NPT, it seems very clear that this is a formulation which is directed against Iran and perhaps also against North Korea. After the Posture Review statement came out, Secretary of Defense Gates essentially said that at a press conference about the statement. . . .
I think it is important to point out that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the international organization that is responsible for monitoring countries’ compliance with NPT obligations, in its reports about Iran over the years, even when it identified problems in Iran’s reporting at times, it has always said that there is no evidence that Iran is diverting nuclear materials toward an inappropriate, illegitimate, purpose. The IAEA said that repeatedly. So, in that sense, I think it’s difficult to make a convincing case that Iran is not in compliance with its fundamental obligations under the NPT, but that is where the Obama administration’s rhetoric is headed. . . .
This is the way that Secretary Gates and other administration officials have explained this kind of exception for Iran: that they want to put pressure on Iran. They want to put pressure, they think, so Iran will be more cooperative with American preferences regarding Iran’s nuclear activities. But that strikes me as just an inherently illogical position. Telling Iran that it’s going to be singled out for the threat of a nuclear attack, even if it’s a non-nuclear weapon state — from a purely strategic point of view, that actually, I think, would give Iran an incentive to go ahead and acquire nuclear weapons. Now, I know that Iran has said that it has no interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, but, from a purely strategic point of view, if the United States is gonna say, “You, Iran, even though you’re not a nuclear weapon state, we’re gonna threaten to attack you with nuclear weapons anyway,” why shouldn’t Iran then go ahead and acquire nuclear weapons? What you want to do is incentivize greater Iranian cooperation on nuclear matters. I think this is exactly the wrong way to go about it. . . . If they are going to get threatened this way as a non-nuclear weapon state, why not go ahead and get the weapon? You know, what’s gonna be the difference in terms of the American posture? . . .
On the nuclear issue per se, my argument is that, as long as we are insisting that Iran give up uranium enrichment on its own territory, I think this is a non-starter. The reality is that Iran is enriching uranium under the terms of the NPT. It has the right to do these kinds of activities. And they are going to do them. I think the real key is to say, “OK, we recognize your right to enrich uranium, but now let’s talk about monitoring arrangements, verification, how you deal with the IAEA and others, so that we all can have the confidence that proliferation risks associated with uranium enrichment are under control.” That is going to have to be the basis for any kind of negotiated resolution to the nuclear standoff. More broadly, I think that it’s gonna be hard to deal with the nuclear issue just in isolation. In the end, I think what Iran is looking for is what they call a comprehensive framework for dialogue with the United States and with other major international powers. At the end of the day, they want to know that the United States is going to accept the Islamic Republic; it is going to accept that Iran under the Islamic Republic has an important, legitimate regional role. They’re gonna want to see the kind of broad range of issues that divide the United States and Iran dealt with in a comprehensive way. I use the shorthand of a “grand bargain.” In the end, it’s gonna need to be a grand bargain between the United States and Iran, in which all the differences, not just over the nuclear issue, but over various regional issues and so forth, are put on the table and resolved in a package. This is basically the model that President Nixon used to realign the US relation with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. I think this is the only approach which is really gonna work with regard to Iran. . . .
I think it [the Nuclear Posture Review] is going to feed into a growing perception in Iran that the Obama administration is not really serious about improving American relations with the Islamic Republic. If you recall, after President Obama’s first Nowruz message last year, 2009, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, came out in his annual Nowruz speech in Mashhad and said very famously, referring to the United States: “OK, you say you want to change things. We don’t have any experience with you and your new administration. But if you change your policy, if you change your approach to us, we will change, too.” I think that the Iranians have been looking for concrete policy steps, initiatives, proposals from the Obama administration to follow up on what they saw as some initially very promising rhetoric from President Obama about Iran. From the Iranian perspective this has not been forthcoming. Now, Obama is headed down the same sanctions path as the Bush administration pursued. And here he comes out with this new Nuclear Posture statement but he carves out this exception for Iran, so that the United States will continue to threaten to use nuclear weapons against Iran. I think it’s just going to feed this narrative, feed this perception, in Iran that the Obama administration is not seriously interested in putting the US-Iranian relations on a different, more productive path. . . .
I think that the way the Iranian election last year was reported, perceived, interpreted in the United States — in my own view, it was to a large degree misreported, misunderstood, misinterpreted in the United States, but, be that as it may, that election and how it was internalized in the United States — had an extremely damaging effect on the climate for the Obama administration seeking, in its kind of half-hearted way, to pursue engagement with Iran over the nuclear issue. I think that the administration’s rhetoric about the Iranian internal affairs has gotten progressively tougher since the Iranian election last year. The Iranians have noticed this, which again feeds into this narrative and perception on the Iranian side that the Obama administration is not really serious about strategic realignment between Iran and the United States. . . .
Over time, I think the reality is gradually starting to sink in. However much some people in the United States may hope that, in the aftermath of last year’s election, in Iran there is going to be some kind of revolutionary upheaval that will sweep away the Islamic Republic, I think the reality is slowly sinking in that that’s not gonna happen, and if you’re gonna deal with Iran, you’re gonna need to deal with the Islamic Republic — and the Islamic Republic as it is, not as some Americans might wish it to be.
We are going to go through this sanctions exercise, but I’m very, very confident that the sanctions are not gonna generate any meaningful strategic leverage over Iranian decision-making and it’s not goona produce any kind of positive result from an American perspective, so, at some point down the road — six months, twelve months, down the road — the Obama administration is gonna have to basically ask the question of “what do we do now?” since the sanctions are, predictably enough, not working. Whether the administration can get back on a path that is focused on possibilities for engagement, or whether those forces in American politics who have wanted to take a more coercive approach to Iran get the upper hand — that remains to be seen.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. This interview, conducted for the Voices of the Middle East program, was broadcast by KBOO on 9 April 2010. The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.