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Iraq Redux: “Conventional Wisdom” of Iran Analysts

The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler had an important story: “Even as Momentum for Iran Sanctions Grows, Containment Seems Only Viable Option.”  Glenn states his thesis up front:

After months of first attempting to engage Iran and then wooing Russia and China to support new sanctions against the Islamic Republic, the Obama Administration appears within reach of winning a modest tightening of U.N. measures targeting Tehran.  But administration officials acknowledge that even what they call “crippling” sanctions could prove ineffective in keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  That stalemate, in the view of many analysts, means that a strategy of containing Iran is inevitable — diplomatic isolation backed by defense systems supplied to Persian Gulf allies.

Some of the analysts that Glenn cites for his thesis depict this desultory scenario as entirely the product of Iranian intransigence, unrelated to the strategically deficient approaches to Iran pursued by the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations.  This interpretation — that the problems in U.S.-Iranian relations are all caused by an ideologically driven and illegitimate leadership in Tehran — is well on its way to becoming “conventional wisdom” among the political classes here in the United States.

This is an important point.  A certain “conventional wisdom” — pushed by a mix of Iraqi expatriates like Ahmad Chalabi and American analysts like Ken Pollack — took hold in American political and policy circles before the Iraq war in 2003.  That conventional wisdom was wrong in virtually all of its particulars, but few public intellectuals (or journalists or Congressmen) were willing to question it.  In fact, most rolled over for the conventional wisdom that took hold regarding Iraq.  And, to the best of our knowledge, not a single public intellectual or journalist among the many who got Iraq so glaringly wrong paid any sort of professional price for that.

Whether on Wall Street or in American foreign policy, lack of accountability for duplicity and/or incompetence sets up all of us for profoundly damaging outcomes.  No one paid a price for the colossal analytic failures that neutered our debate about the war in Iraq — and, now, the political classes are once again falling for an intellectually lazy but politically convenient conventional wisdom regarding an important foreign policy issue, this time about the Islamic Republic of Iran.  To illustrate the point, we will review some of the claims made by analysts in Glenn’s piece, and juxtapose those claims against corrective observations.

Emerging conventional wisdom, from Kessler’s article: “Indeed, few experts think that any negotiations will amount to much.  Iran has been engaged, off and on, with European and U.S. interlocutors since 2003 over its nuclear program.  Over time, the offers from the U.S.-European side have grown sweeter, with little response from Iran.”

Corrective observations: In fact, very little of Iran’s extensive diplomatic interaction with outside powers over its nuclear program has directly involved the United States — because the United States has declined to show up to more than a grand total of three meetings with Iranian representatives about the nuclear issue since 2003.  In the course of its nuclear discussions with the Europeans, Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program (or, depending on one’s definition, it suspended the most critical elements of that program) for almost two years.  As our colleague at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mark Fitzpatrick, correctly pointed out in a comment on www.TheRaceForIran.com, the suspension delayed American efforts to move the Iranian nuclear file from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the United Nations Security Council.  But, from an Iranian perspective, it did not get Tehran any longer-lasting strategic payoff.

As far as the various incentives packages getting “sweeter,” it does not matter if the parts of the packages that are strategically irrelevant for Tehran got sweeter when the packages have never addressed the Islamic Republic’s most fundamental security interests.  This is a point that Glenn Kessler understands well.  As we have explained it:

[I]t is illuminating to compare the incentives package tabled by the “EU-3” (Britain, France and Germany) in August 2005, when the United States was still refusing to participate in multilateral nuclear talks, to the package tabled by the “P-5+1” (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany) in June 2006, after the Bush administration had conditionally agreed to join the process.  Regarding the prospects for economic and technological cooperation with Iran, the two packages are broadly similar — indeed, in a few passages, the two documents are almost identical, word-for-word.  But there is a profound disconnect between the two packages regarding regional security issues.

  • The 2005 EU-3 package offers the Islamic Republic positive security assurances, negative security guarantees and a commitment to cooperate in establishing ”confidence-building measures and regional security arrangements” as well as a regional weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone.  But, as European diplomats involved in nuclear discussions with Iran readily acknowledge, security assurances and guarantees from Europe alone were never especially interesting to Tehran — to be meaningful for the Islamic Republic’s strategic needs and interests, it was essential that the United States endorse such measures.
  • But the George W. Bush Administration refused to join in offers of security assurances and guarantees to the Islamic Republic.  In contrast to the 2005 EU-3 package, there is little mention of security issues in the 2006 P-5+1 package endorsed by the United States, except for an offer of “support for a new conference to promote dialogue and cooperation on regional security issues”.  Conversations with officials from P-5+1 governments indicate that the George W. Bush administration insisted that fuller references to security be removed as a condition for US endorsement.

This deficit was not substantially corrected in the ”revised” P-5+1 package tabled in June 2008.

In a footnote on the 2008 revised package, we point out that,

although the revised package included more language on regional security and political issues than the 2006 package, on the core issue of the Islamic Republic’s national security, the document only reaffirms states’ “obligation under the UN Charter to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the integrity or political independence of any state or in any manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations”.  But, unless the United States and the United Kingdom are prepared to acknowledge that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was inconsistent with those countries’ obligations under the UN Charter, it is not clear why Iranian leaders should be satisfied with this revised P-5+1 package.

As we have also noted,

the Obama administration has decided not to go beyond the terms of the P-5+1 package in its representations to Iran.  Since President Obama took office, there has been no offer to Tehran of comprehensive engagement with a well-defined agenda and the clearly stated goal of realigning US-Iranian relations in a manner that would address the Islamic Republic’s legitimate security interests and regional role.  In private communications to Iranian leaders as well as in public statements, there has been only vague rhetoric.

Emerging conventional wisdom, from Kessler’s article: “The U.N. Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions on Tehran for failing to negotiate seriously about its program.  So far, said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pressure has ‘cost the Iranian economy but has not affected Iranian decision-making.’  But he warned that containment will be ‘hard and difficult and may require the use of force to enforce red lines.'”

Corrective observations: With regard to sanctions, the Security Council did not impose sanctions on Iran for “failing to negotiate seriously.”  The Council, by its own testimony, imposed sanctions because Iran did not meet its demands to stop enriching uranium or clear up unanswered questions about the Islamic Republic’s past reporting to the IAEA.  But the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) does not prohibit Iran from enriching uranium; indeed, as part of an effort “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” the Treaty acknowledges the “inalienable right” of Iran or any other NPT signatory to enrich uranium.  And, Tehran argues that some of the IAEA’s “unanswered questions” about their nuclear activities are based on intelligence from the United States and Israel that those governments do not allow the IAEA to show to the Iranians.

With regard to Ray’s comments about militarized containment (Ray and James Lindsay recently published a Washington Post Op Ed and a Foreign Affairs article on the subject), they at least go beyond those of most analysts, who seem to assume that the Islamic Republic will simply acquiesce to militarized containment without any kind of response.  In the face of what Tehran will see as a heightened threat to Iranian security, the Islamic Republic will almost certainly continue to take steps — developing its nuclear capabilities, supporting regional proxies, etc. — that the United States will view as provocative, perhaps unacceptably provocative.  But what this means, and what Kessler fails to point out, is that containment is not going to be a stable situation — in fact, as we have argued, America’s pursuit of a containment strategy against Iran is dangerous and likely to lead to war.

Emerging conventional wisdom, from Kessler’s article: “Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that ‘there is a clique in power’ in Tehran that ‘does not respond to incentives and does not respond to disincentives.’  The Iranian government, under siege from the popular uprising last year after a disputed presidential election, views the nuclear program as a rallying point for national pride — and it thrives on the perception of the United States as an implacable enemy, he said.  ‘The overwhelming focus of this leadership is on the narrow focus of enriching uranium,’ Sadjadpour said.  ‘If the Iranian government makes the decision that Iran wants to bet the farm on the nuclear program, it will be difficult to deter them from doing so.'”

Corrective observations: Where to begin?  There is not a “clique in power” in Tehran — there is an Iranian government, with multiple power centers, that functions as a system.  That is why repeated efforts by American administrations to game that system, by trying to identify and work with individual Iranian leaders we see as relatively “moderate” and ignoring those we find unpleasant, always fall flat.  That is why the Obama Administration’s decision to ignore communications from President Ahmadinejad and try to establish an exclusive channel to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — a course recommended by Karim, among others — was such a blunder.

As far as incentives and disincentives are concerned, the Iranian government has rejected this “donkey” approach of carrots and sticks.  But Tehran has repeatedly indicated, and continues to indicate, its openness to strategically-grounded engagement, aimed at dealing with and resolving the full range of issues on the U.S.-Iranian agenda.

We certainly agree with Karim that Iran will continue to enrich uranium.  But this does not mean that Iran wants or has decided to go all the way to fabricating nuclear weapons.  In the context of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, it would be relatively easy to agree on Iran’s implementation of the Additional Protocol and other international measures to control the proliferation risks associated with its fuel cycle activities.

Karim’s claim that the Iranian government is “under siege from the popular uprising last year after a disputed presidential election” is a wholly unsubstantiated — and, to put it frankly, false — assertion.  The evidence of the Green movement’s decline since June 2009 is clear and irrefutable.  One of the very strong impressions we took away from our visit to Tehran in February — shortly after the publicly promised and widely anticipated show of strength by the Green movement on February 11, the anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding, had turned out to be an almost complete “bust” — is that the Iranian government is far from being “under siege” and is, in fact, quite confident in its base of popular support.

Likewise, the notion that the Iranian political system “thrives on the perception of the United States is an implacable enemy” is becoming a key element in the emerging conventional wisdom in Washington about Iran — but it is as wrong as claims about the system’s internal fragility.  For more than 20 years, a critical mass of Iranian elites, cutting across the Islamic Republic’s factional spectrum, has supported the pursuit of rapprochement with the United States.  To be sure, Iran does not want rapprochement with the United States at any price, and Tehran is considering other options for the Islamic Republic’s long-term strategic orientation.

But, since the late 1980s, decision-makers in Tehran have recognized that some of the Islamic Republic’s most basic national security and foreign policy needs can only be met — or, at least, only optimally met — through rapprochement with Washington.  The Islamic Republic’s efforts at exploring the possibilities for a diplomatic and strategic opening to the United States began during Rafsanjani’s presidency, continued during Khatami’s presidency, and have been carried forward under Ahmadinejad’s administration.  And, across all three presidencies, exploration of rapprochement with the United States has been endorsed by Ayatollah Khamenei — notwithstanding Khamenei’s deep suspicion that the United States will never be prepared to accept and live with the Islamic Republic.

Claims that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy debate is too ideologically constrained to allow for a strategic opening to the United States are simply not supported by the historical record.  On this point, we recommend a recent interview with Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Islamic Republic’s Atomic Energy Organization and our piece about that interview.  In particular, Salehi’s words in this interview about America should be read by all those who continue to circulate the false and ahistorical argument that the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is irrevocably grounded in hostility to the United States.

Emerging conventional wisdom, from Kessler’s article: “Sadjadpour says that the purge of moderates from the decision-making structures in Iran has made it more likely that the country will attempt ‘the Pakistan option.’  Under this scenario, Iran would declare itself a nuclear weapons state, endure the condemnation and then watch as the world comes crawling back, anxious to bring it back into the international fold.  Any military strike at that time would only temporarily set back the program and then ‘preserve the worst elements of the regime,’ Sadjadpour said.  ‘It would buy the regime another decade or even a generation.'”

Corrective observations: Did Glenn ask Karim just who are the moderates that have been “purged” from high-level decision-making about nuclear matters?  There is ample evidence that, since Ahmadinejad became President in 2005, Ayatollah Khamenei has taken numerous affirmative steps to ensure that he continues to hear a wide range of views about nuclear issues.  Ali Larijani, Hassan Rohani, Kamal Kharrazi, even Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — all continue to play important roles in the ongoing discussion of nuclear matters in Iranian leadership circles.  At the same time, there is no evidence that Iran is moving toward a “Pakistan option” — which, we suppose, Karim would distinguish from a so-called “Japan option.”  Our understanding is that, while Ayatollah Khamenei strongly supports continued development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, at this point he also continues to oppose any move toward overt weaponization.

We must make one further observation about the role of Green movement partisans, like Karim, in the Iran debate here in the United States.  The fact of the matter is that their analyses of Iranian politics since the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election have been completely wrong — and have been proven wrong by the course of actual events.  It is certainly the right of Green movement partisans in Washington to hold their views and advocate for the overthrow of a foreign government.  But those who do so should not be considered disinterested and objective — or accurate — analysts of Iranian issues.

In the years preceding America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, many American elites allowed themselves to be taken in by Ahmad Chalabi and others espousing a romantic view of the possibilities for political transformation in Iraq that would solve all of the major challenges to American interests in the Middle East.  Politicians, policymakers, journalists, and others should not allow themselves to be taken in again — or excuse bad and misleading analysis of Iranian developments because those promoting that analysis must surely “mean well.”  At this point in America’s post-9/11 engagement in the Middle East, we cannot afford that kind of sentimentality anymore.


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.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 23 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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