Guest Note by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett: Obama’s Iran Sanctions Delusion


This is a guest note by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett. Flynt directs the New America Foundation/Iran Project and is a former Senior Director of Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council. Hillary is chairman of Stratega, a political risk consultancy. They are co-publishers of the forthcoming blog, The Race for Iran.
As anticipated in our post on this blog on October 13 (and a monograph published by Johns Hopkins’ Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies earlier this week), China authoritatively signaled today that it will not support the imposition of anything approaching “crippling” international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.
Nor will Chinese leaders support measures that would negatively impact what Beijing sees as its most important economic and strategic interests at stake in China’s developing relationship with the Islamic Republic.
Indeed, after meeting with Iran’s Vice President, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, in Beijing, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao noted that Sino-Iranian “cooperation in trade and energy has widened and deepened”, and stated that the Chinese government “will maintain high-level exchanges with Iran, enhance mutual understanding and trust, promote bilateral pragmatic cooperation and coordinate closely in international affairs”.
Wen’s statement comes a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who has done more than anyone else in the Obama Administration to promulgate the threat of “crippling” sanctions if Tehran does not surrender on the nuclear issue – was disabused of whatever illusions she was clinging to about Moscow’s willingness to support a strategically meaningful intensification of international pressure on the Islamic Republic.
Furthermore, it comes a day after Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campell, also in Beijing, offered more hot air about “the need to see more cooperation and coordination between the United States and China” regarding Iran.
We supported Barack Obama in his campaign for the White House in 2008 – but we have to say that, at this point, it is hard to identify any significant improvement in America’s Iran policy under President Obama compared to the strategically dysfunctional approach pursued by the George W. Bush Administration.
The Obama Administration’s continuing advocacy of a “dual track” approach to Iran is particularly misleading. There is not a serious sanctions “option” for resolving the nuclear issue or other strategic differences with Iran. The Administration’s constant cheer leading for sanctions does nothing for U.S. interests – but will undercut the credibility of whatever diplomatic overtures Secretary Clinton and her colleagues make toward Tehran.
The “dual track” approach only makes sense as a lowest-common-denominator consensus position among different camps of Obama’s foreign policy and political advisers. Looking for that kind of consensus may have been an effective way to run the Harvard Law Review. It is not a way to define coherent and effective foreign policy.
Significantly, the meeting between Wen and Rahimi took place on the margins of a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a regional security forum comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, in which Iran, India, and Pakistan have observer status.
Among other things, summit participants will be launching discussions about expanding use of member states’ currencies for intra-SCO trade (including oil and gas), thereby reducing the dollar’s use as a transactional currency.
It is popular in U.S. foreign policy circles to dismiss the SCO as a “talk shop”. But we think the SCO is interesting as a harbinger of future strategic trends – trends that, left unchecked, could profoundly accelerate the decline of America’s strategic position. Checking those trends requires that the United States pursue a fundamentally different sort of relationship with Iran.
But that won’t happen until the Obama Administration faces reality about what its options really are.
Hillary and I will be launching our own blog, The Race for Iran, next week. We hope you will take a look.
— Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


19 comments on “Guest Note by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett: Obama’s Iran Sanctions Delusion

  1. ... says:

    paul – ‘she’s come a long way baby’….


  2. Paul Norheim says:

    So now we are to believe that Nadine would have
    opposed America`s role in the coup against Mosaddeq
    if she`d been there…


  3. nadine says:

    “It is quite interesting that many of the people who lament the American role in the coup against Mossadegh are indifferent to whether the most recent Iranian election was stolen.”
    Of course. You can’t blame the US for the stolen election.
    What strikes me about Leverett is the myopia. He’s so focused on the “Grand Baragain” that he is willing to sell out all hopes of the biggest US interest of all – regime change in Iran. It would be so immensely helpful to US interests in the Gulf just to have a non-revolutionary power in Iran, one that concentrated on Iran, not Lebanon or Gaza or Saudi Arabia. With the Iranian government weakened by massive internal unrest, you’d think it would be worth considering what we could to do aid regime change. Even if it’s a long shot, the payoff would be so massive, surely it’s worth considering — but no. Not a moment’s consideration. The stolen election, the demonstrations, the crackdown are inconveniences Leverett intends to overlook.


  4. Paul Norheim says:

    “do we always have to count on zathras to say something negative about the iranian
    leadership?” (…)
    Do you really defend the Iranian leadership – because USA is “worse”?


  5. ... says:

    zathras qoute “There is no likely combination of circumstances — not even one the Leveretts can devise — that will make Ahmedinejad or Khamenei anything but hostile to the United States.”
    do we always have to count on zathras to say something negative about the iranian leadership? it could have been worded just as easily to say something negative about the u.s.a. who for all intents and purposes seems to outdo iran in the hostility dept. by a factor of about 1000 to 1 anyway… there, i said it… think about it!
    if the usa could get the stick out of its ass (military industrial complex and an israeli ass sucking congress to use a few quick examples), it might be in a better position to consider some other options then the ones it always seems to go for…


  6. JohnH says:

    The Leveretts stand accused of not spelling out US interests in Iran!?! Name someone in Washington who has! For years–yes, years–I’ve been complaining about those vital strategic interests that remain mysteriously undefined. Now suddenly it’s incumbent on someone who disagrees with US policy to define them. Why didn’t anyone ever bother to ask Condi or Hillary what they are? Or aren’t they expected to know?


  7. Zathras says:

    The unworthy thought occurs that the Leveretts haven’t spelled out what they think American interests are with respect to Iran because their Iranian interlocutors have not communicated that information to them yet.
    Small wonder, that: they’ve been too busy. Ahmedinejad and his associates are in a much weaker political position at home than is, say, the Obama administration. They face discontent among the Iranian people, disunion among the clergy over the handling of last June’s election, and an apparent drift of power within the state away from the clerical establishment and toward the security services. Like some African governments, they enjoy a degree of support from a Chinese government interested in securing resources on favorable terms, but from Tehran this probably looks like a thin silver lining on an awfully big cloud.
    I understand how the Obama administration has been reasoning. It wants to make clear its very limited objectives with respect to Iran’s nuclear program while making equally clear its lack of interest in adding to the Iranian regime’s domestic political problems. The Obama administration hopes that the onus for provoking any confrontation will fall on Iran. It reasons further that from the standpoint of Russia or China an Iran that has agreed to inspections intrusive enough to make developing a nuclear weapons capability will be just as attractive a trade partner as one that has not. Since no one really has an interest in an Iranian bomb, there should be no reason for the major powers not to unite on steps intended to prevent one from being developed.
    The reasoning is coherent, and is certainly mild in tone compared to the thinking of some officials in the Bush administration. However, the fact that it misreads the thinking of every one of America’s interlocutors in this situation is a significant strike against it.
    The Chinese are interested in nuclear proliferation to government that might use them to influence Chinese policy; a Taiwanese or Vietnamese bomb would be a source of grave concern in Beijing, an Iranian bomb not so much. The Russians might be induced to exchange their support for sanctions against Iran for something they wanted, but Obama gave away the strategic missile defense they objected to in Eastern Europe for nothing. Why should the Russians cooperate with the United States on Iran now?
    As for the Iranians, the Obama administration continues to turn a blind eye to the divisions within Iran — the thing the regime is really worried about — while at all times treating the regime and the Iranian nation as one and the same. This gives Khamenei and Ahmedinejad the opening they need to present themselves as patriotically standing up against American pressure on the nuclear issue. At the same time, they sponsor show trials of political opponents, accusing them of acting on behalf of foreign interests. The Obama administration’s “realism” on this point isn’t yielding the fruit anticipated, nor is it likely to.
    I can well believe the Iranian security services want a nuclear weapons capability, for many of the same reasons their counterparts in Pakistan did a decade ago, but I don’t see any reason to believe an Iranian bomb is imminent. This means we have time. I suggest we use it to make things difficult for America’s enemies in the Iranian government and encourage the political enemies they have made for themselves in Iran. There is no likely combination of circumstances — not even one the Leveretts can devise — that will make Ahmedinejad or Khamenei anything but hostile to the United States. The solution to this problem does not lie with the Chinese.


  8. JohnH says:

    Wigwag, your obstinacy continues. You assume that the only thing that Iranians want is what the protesters want. But, as I wrote above, and which you failed to rebut, democracy may not be the outcome of a shift to the “reformers.”
    Second, you fail to look at the reasons the regime has survived this long–a lot of ordinary Iranians are better off economically. The regime has delivered a better life, and it could potentially have delivered more without US imposed sanctions.
    So if you were a betting Iranian, would you put your future into the hands of people who would return to the poverty associated with the liberal economic policies of the Shah and maybe, just maybe some sort of democracy? Or would you put your faith in a regime that will not bring democracy and absolutely will not return the country to the woeful economic conditions prevalent under the Shah, who spent 18% of GDP on the military, mostly for American made weapons?


  9. WigWag says:

    Dan, I think you are mistaken in many of the statements you’ve made in your comment.
    1) Like Flynt Leverett himself, you’ve made the mistake of comparing the situation with Iran today with the situation in China at the time Nixon decided to travel to Beijing. The difference between the two situations renders the analogy absurd.
    Nixon’s decision to go to China was motivated by the fact that at the time, China and the Soviet Union were increasingly hostile to each other and viewed each other suspiciously due to border disputes and other issues. By engaging China, Nixon was confronting America’s paramount adversary, the world’s second superpower and ruler of a vast empire of allied nations. Whatever strategic benefits accrue to the United States by selling out the freedom fighters to make a deal with the reactionary Mullahs pale in comparison to the strategic benefits of engaging China.
    In addition, at the time Nixon went to China, Mao was sick, the more rational Chou En Lai was in charge, the Cultural Revolution was fading and progressive change was just beginning. Nixon’s trip to China encouraged this incipient move towards greater economic if not political freedom. Only a few short years later, the Gang of Four had been imprisoned, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing had received a death sentence (later commuted) and Deng Xiaoping was introducing profound change. As Tiananmen Square proved, progress was far from perfect, but nonetheless Nixon’s decision to engage China helped move China in a positive direction.
    The situation in Iran could not be more different. As Roger Cohen, who used to agree with the Leveretts until he watched the Mullahs in action first hand after the election, has suggested, the Mullahs are desperate to be the ones who facilitate a rapprochement with the West. They understand that ultimately a rapprochement is all that will quell Iran’s growing economic problems and that the party that negotiates that rapprochement will have its status significantly reinforced. Making the Leveretts grand bargain with the most reactionary elements in Iranian society won’t facilitate progressive change like Nixon’s trip to China did; it will prolong the rule of the most reactionary elements in Iranian Society.
    One more thing; comparing China, a nation that is by far the largest nation in the world, with one of the largest armies and stockpiles of nuclear weapons with Iran is just silly on the face of it.
    2) You’ve suggested that I’m disdainful of seeking economic gain as a goal of foreign policy. I’m not. What I am disdainful of is the philosophy of the Leveretts (“crack cocaine realism” as Steve Clemons called it) that puts “interests” over “principles” virtually 100 percent of the time.
    In addition, I can’t agree with your implication that by making a grand bargain with the reactionary Mullahs we will provide “millions of people in the United States (remember, it’s American interests the Leveretts are trying to promote) with more prosperity and the opportunity for a better everyday life.” That’s a wee bit hyperbolic; don’t you think?
    3) I don’t know precisely what types of sanctions the Europeans are prepared to support. The one thing that is clear is that President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Berlusconi and Chancellor Merkel appear to be bigger hawks on Iran than President Obama is. Prime Minister Brown is at least as skeptical about Iranian intentions as Obama is. While the Chinese and Russians may not support crippling sanctions; the Europeans almost certainly will. Even without Chinese and Russian cooperation, Europe and the United States can still craft a sanctions program that will hurt the regime.
    I don’t claim to be an expert. Whether there is a realistic way for a sanctions program to be crafted that hurts the more reactionary elements in Iranian society while sparing the more progressive elements is beyond my pay grade. If there is, then I think the United States and Europe should support it.
    4) You’ve suggested that “increasing levels of commerce, cultural exchange and travel to and from and from Iran, will do much more to cement friendship between Americans and ordinary Iranians…” That may or may not be true, but it is beside the point. To achieve the Leveretts’ “grand bargain” the United States will have to promise not to support regime change, eschew covert assistance to the Iranian freedom fighters and even stop using outlets as benign as the VOA to influence Iranian political affairs. By doing this, we will be sacrificing the interests of those “ordinary Iranians” you, yourself acknowledge we should be helping. Vast numbers of Iranians already look to the United States as a beacon of hope and aspire to possess western freedoms. Making a deal with the Mullahs doesn’t promote the interests of those Iranians, it betrays the interests of those Iranians.
    As for military intervention against Iran; there may be opportunities to conduct them at reasonable cost and without a massive invasion. Naval blockades, the use of new bunker buster ordinance, bombing campaigns directed specifically against the Basij militias and Revolutionary Guards and targeted assassination of reactionary Mullahs and Revolutionary Guard leaders all come to mind.
    I’m not saying (yet) that I would support these measures, but I wouldn’t exclude thinking about them either.
    5) You demean the Iranian freedom fighters by dismissing them as frustrated youth with immature yearnings. Has it occurred to you that maybe they are just like the women in your family? You know what I mean; they want to decide for themselves whether they have to cover their hair when they go outside. And they don’t want thugs on motorbikes beating them if they don’t meet some pathological monster’s sick sense of modesty.
    You can demean those who aspire to have what your family and my family have if you want to. We already know how the Leveretts feel; they don’t care one way or the other.
    By the way, according to Haaretz, there are numerous reports tonight, still unconfirmed, that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has died.


  10. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who has done more than anyone else in the Obama Administration to promulgate the threat of “crippling” sanctions if Tehran does not surrender on the nuclear issue”
    No shit, Sherlocks. You get the big bucks for figuring this stuff out???
    “….but we have to say that, at this point, it is hard to identify any significant improvement in America’s Iran policy under President Obama compared to the strategically dysfunctional approach pursued by the George W. Bush Administration”
    It took a think tank to figure that out? Gads, you coulda just read the comment section at TWN to get that opinion. Can a simple carpenter from central Cal tap your bankroll for awhile? Heck, I’ll pump this stuff off my keyboard for ya.
    “The Administration’s constant cheer leading for sanctions does nothing for U.S. interests – but will undercut the credibility of whatever diplomatic overtures Secretary Clinton and her colleagues make toward Tehran”
    Hmmmmm. Took ya awhile, I was saying this MONTHS ago.
    “Hillary and I will be launching our own blog, The Race for Iran, next week. We hope you will take a look”
    Well, I don’t know. You gonna be stealing my stuff?
    Just kidding. But does it really take a “think tank” to arrive at common sense conclusions?


  11. Dan Kervick says:

    I suppose we sold out the Tiananmen Square protesters too. But continuing with our post-1972 policy of engagement with China is the smartest foreign policy move this country has made in the past half-century. It has been shockingly wise and steady by US foreign policy standards. Engagement has been far better for us, and also far better for the Chinese, than any alternative policy of sanctions and isolation would have been. Most Chinese seem to believe their country is on the right track. Much dissatisfaction remains; but dissatisfaction is part of life.
    WigWag, you speak of “economics” disdainfully, as though it were all about satisfying greed and building mountains of money for the few. But providing millions of people with more prosperity and the opportunity for a better everyday life is neither amoral nor immoral. Deprivation, on the other hand, tends to make people miserable and brings them into conflict with one another. I am deeply skeptical of the idea that we must impoverish Iranians to free them.
    And again, regime change is simply not on the table. Are you trying to tell us that the Europeans are prepared to enact and sustain crippling sanctions all the way to regime change? Please. Nobody in the world can afford to treat Iran like Cuba.
    The Leveretts should indeed spell out their view of US interests more clearly. But where Iran is concerned, the chief interest is clearly security. The United States can’t afford to allow its competitors to develop increasingly lucrative relationships with Iran, relationships that will probably encompass security arrangements that will grow increasingly hostile to the US, and could be turned into economic weapons, or worse, to be deployed against us. Nor, without engaging Iran ourselves, do we have the capacity to prevent these relationships from arising.
    The other important interest we have lies in the prospect of extricating ourselves from disastrously draining and costly military engagements in the Middle East. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we face continued, destabilizing threats from reactionary Salafist militants. These are our chief nemeses in that part of the world. And their most powerful natural adversary lies in the great Persian expanse between those two countries. It is neither cynical nor immoral to do what we must to protect ourselves and our loved ones by working in a constructive way with other powers in the region against the remnants of the Sunni extremist fringe that attacked our country.
    Historical experience suggests that openness and engagement, with increasing levels of commerce, cultural exchange and and travel to and from and from Iran, will do much more to cement friendship between Americans and ordinary Iranians over the long run than domestically expedient, feel-good expressions of melodramatic solidarity with youthful Tehran activists. Romantic revolutionary ardor has backfired far more often than it has succeeded.
    The Washington Note commenter questions has also been suggesting recently that deliberations about mere money, budgets and economics lack the pizzaz of “moral” debates, and so we should avoid the former and focus on the latter where Afghanistan is concerned. But the choices we make as to how we spend our limited resources, and about how we build wealth, save wealth, distribute wealth or destroy wealth, are preeminently moral questions, as anyone knows who has ever looked after a family. An abiding focus on material resource and their wise use is part of the ethic of responsibility.
    We all have impulses and cravings toward various kinds of freedom; and are always attracted to outpourings of youthful frustration and yearning. But we have obligations toward other people. And choosing the most responsible path toward meeting as many of those obligations as we can is what morality means in an adult context.


  12. JohnH says:

    Maybe Leverett and Mann don’t believe that supporting the interests of Rafsanjani, the richest man in Iran, and his lieutenant Mousavi necessarily advance the interests of democracy in Iran.
    Wigwag, your whole argument hangs on a slender reed–the presumption that the demonstrators would get democracy. IMHO they would just have gotten a different faction of the ruling elite, no more pre-disposed to democracy than the existing one.
    In that case, the difference between the Rafsanjani and the Khamenei factions boils down to control of oil and to trade liberalization, AKA openness to Western investment. Again IMHO, Rafsanjani’s “reform” movement had more to do with Western investors than with any democratization, which is why the Western media went gaga over the prospects of Mousavi’s election.


  13. WigWag says:

    As usual, the Leverett’s fail to articulate what concessions the United States will have to offer the Iranian Mullahs to get them to agree to the “grand bargain” that they recommend. The Leveretts now have two separate posts appearing at the Washington Note and in both they fail to address this fundamental question.
    What makes the Leveretts so sure that selling out the democracy demonstrators is in the interests of the United States? Inking a deal with the Mullahs and the other reactionary elements who rule Iran will be precisely that; a sell-out.
    As the Leveretts surely know, to achieve the deal that they recommend the United States will need to promise the Mullahs that it won’t support regime change; that it won’t fund or participate in covert operations against Iran and that it won’t offer any meaningful assistance to the Iranian students or other progressive forces who want to see democracy in Iran prevail.
    Why do the Leveretts feel the need to obfuscate their position; why can’t they just admit that they are disinterested in the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people; that from a policy perspective they are indifferent to whether the Basij militia torments, arrests or even rapes student demonstrators and that from their point of view it doesn’t matter whether the election was stolen or not?
    It is quite interesting that many of the people who lament the American role in the coup against Mossadegh are indifferent to whether the most recent Iranian election was stolen. What makes the Leveretts so sure that it is in American interests to abandon the student freedom fighters in favor of the conservative mullahs? What happens if the freedom fighters ultimately defeat the usurpers? How will Iranians feel about a United States that signed a “grand bargain” with the conservative Mullahs while abandoning those who supported greater freedom?
    To be fair to the Leveretts, they are a model of consistency. Presumably Steve Clemons called them “crack cocaine realists” because they are indifferent to everything other than their jaundiced perception of American interests. That’s why they are indifferent to the suffering of Tibetans and it’s why they probably supported Nixon and Kissinger when they ordered the CIA to facilitate the coup against Allende in Chile. After all, if a coup against the elected government in Chile advanced American interests, they would be for it; the consequences for the Chilean people are damned.
    Another thing the Leveretts seem reluctant to discuss is precisely what American interests are advanced by the grand bargain that they recommend. In their two posts appearing on this blog, they mention only one “interest” that a “grand bargain” might facilitate; preventing the Chinese from monopolizing Iranian energy opportunities. Why won’t they mention all the other ways that the United States will be safer or more prosperous if it sells out the freedom fighters? Could it be that those “interests” are primarily economic and that many decent people would be aghast at the morality of the deal the Leveretts want the United States to make?
    The Leveretts position is being ignored by the Obama Administration, by the major nations in Europe and by the Sunni Arab world because of the widespread recognition that their recommendations are absurd.
    American interests would not be advanced by making the deal the Leveretts recommend and, in any case, the Leveretts are wrong that interests should always trump values.
    One last thing; we know that the Leveretts are convinced that the Chinese will veto a sanctions resolution; they may very well be right. But if and when a sanctions resolution is debated before the Security Council, after the United States, the United Kingdom and France have voted to impose sanctions, in their heart of hearts will the Leveretts be rooting for Russia and China to vote for sanctions or to exercise their veto?
    They claim to support policies that advance American interests; I don’t doubt that they do. But when sanctions are voted on, will they be hoping for the position of the Obama Administration to prevail or to be defeated?
    Come on Flynt and Hillary, time to fess up.
    ps: Best of luck with the new blog.


  14. Anthony says:

    US has its hands tide behind its back by Israel vis-a-vis Iran. Nothing short of hawkish policies will go forward unless US acknowledges that Israel’s interests are not the same as US interests.
    When will US wake up? Will it be too late?


  15. Jasim Husain Ali (Bahrain) says:

    Fuel sanctions against Iran would raise oil prices, thereby undermining economic prosperity of many countries amidst on-going financial crisis.


  16. David says:

    Thank you for keeping us up to speed on this, Steve. Looking forward to the Leveretts’ new blog.
    Gone Warmaking Half Baked works, Mr. Murder.


  17. Mr.Murder says:



  18. Mr.Murder says:

    Obama inherited this narrow spectrum of policy. Bushco. made the Western market shun Iran, which opened the door for China to gain competitive advance there.
    Mission accomplished!
    GWHB, former Ambassador to China, couldn’t be more proud!


  19. JohnH says:

    I must say, the recent direction of TWN is quite positive. It seems that TWN is increasingly assertive in its assessments of the world as it is. The years of allowing neo conmen to frame the world in terms of magical thinking seems to be coming to an end. I applaud Steve for hosting Levy, Weinberg and the Manns, and for his openness on Cuba and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
    Hopefully the United States and the world will begin to solve real problems instead of the bogus ones artfully spun by those blinded by American exceptionalism or beholden to special interests with their private agendas.


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