(Flynt Leverett on the “News Hour with Jim Lehrer”)
In August and September, I will be helping to organize two major national policy forums — one which will take place in Colorado and the other in the U.S. Senate — roughly titled “Thinking the Unthinkable on Iran”.
The premise is that policymakers and average Americans need to think soberly about what the costs and consequences of the two endpoints in the Iran debate are. On one end, there is the prospect of a hot, invasive attack by the U.S. (and potential allies) designed to disable and set back Iran’s nuclear program. On the other is Iran with a fully developed and robust reprocessing capacity and nuclear warheads in its possession.
There are many, many possibilities between these two endpoints, but these scenarios are enough to help stir thoughtful debate about who and what will be paid if either of these outcomes come to be reality.
One of the no-nonsense, clear-headed analysts of the Middle East situation who has thought about one of the major costs of an American strike against Iran is Flynt Leverett, who has been based at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution.
Leverett previously served during the first term of the Bush administration as Senior Director for the Middle East Initiative on the National Security Council; was the Middle East and Counterterrorism Expert on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and served for ten years as a Senior CIA analyst.
I am pleased to report that Flynt Leverett will become on July 1 my newest colleague in the foreign policy programs at the New America Foundation where he will be Senior Fellow and Director of the Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of Energy Security Project.
Leverett’s latest article, co-written with Pierre Noel, in The National Interest, “The New Axis of Oil”, is exactly the kind of forward-looking scenario development that Washington’s burgeoning industry of hair-trigger “chicken hawks” need to seriously consider.
In this piece, Leverett posits that a strike against Iran will most likely produce a new axis of oil comprising Russia, China, Iran, and other irritated Middle East oil states:
But over the last three years, Russia has also come to see Iran as an important geopolitical partner in its efforts to rollback U.S. influence, not only in Central Asia but in the Caucasus as well. Moscow’s recent proposal to resolve the impasse between the Islamic Republic and the West over Iran’s nuclear activities by establishing Iranian-Russian joint-venture entities for uranium enrichment was calculated to serve all these interests. Such a scheme would allow Moscow to maintain and even expand an Iranian market for its nuclear technology, while also nurturing its developing strategic partnership with Tehran.
It is also increasingly evident that the current leadership in Moscow views the Iranian nuclear issue as an opportunity to frustrate the Bush Administration’s unilateralist inclinations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — formerly Russia’s permanent representative to the UN for ten years and a master of Security Council politics and procedure — and his colleagues anticipate that, in the end, the United States may take unilateral military action against Iran, including the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr. They do not expect to be able to block such action anymore than they could block the invasion of Iraq, but the w1ng prospectively to impose serious costs on the United States for a military strike against Iran by ensuring that Washington lacks international legitimacy for its actions.
For its part, China’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue is directly linked to its assessment of its requirements for energy security. Beijing has already put down a marker, in the form of its opposition to UN sanctions against Sudan, that it will oppose the imposition of multilateral sanctions on an energy-producing state in which Chinese companies operate. In private conversations, senior Chinese diplomats and party officials describe Beijing’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue as seeking to balance a range of interests: a secure supply of oil, nonproliferation and regional stability, the defense of important international norms (including the peaceful resolution of disputes and the sovereign right of states to develop civil nuclear capabilities), securing China’s northwest border (meaning Xinjiang province, where there is a significant Muslim population), the development of Chinese-Iranian relations, the development of U. S.-Chinese relations, and the positions of the European Union and Russia. It seems increasingly clear that, in their efforts to balance this set of interests, Chinese officials will remain deeply resistant to the imposition of sanctions on Iran. And as long as Russian opposition provides China with political cover, Chinese officials seem to calculate that they will not have to choose between relations with Iran and relations with the United States.
China’s willingness to protect Iran from international pressure would also complicate Western efforts to impose meaningful sanctions on Iran through a “coalition of the willing.” Without Chinese participation, a voluntary ban on investment in Iran’s energy sector by Western powers would, at this point, be little more than a symbolic gesture, as U.S. companies are already barred from doing business in Iran by U.S. law, and most European IOCs have put potential projects on hold because of the political uncertainties. In recent years, though, Chinese NOCs have committed themselves at least in principle, to substantial investments in Iran’s energy sector, thereby mitigating the impact of restrictions on Western investment.
With the Bush Administration having ruled out direct and broad-based strategic discussions with Iran aimed at a “grand bargain” that would include a resolution of the nuclear issue, the United States and its European partners are headed down an ultimately futile path in the Security Council.
The Security Council’s failure to deal effectively with the Iranian nuclear issue will confront the United States, during the last two years or so of the Bush Administration’s tenure, with the choice of doing nothing as Iran continues to develop its nuclear capabilities or taking unilateral military action in the hope of slowing down that development. Each of these choices is likely to damage American leadership in the world: Doing nothing will highlight U.S. fecklessness, while unilateral action without international legitimacy will further strain America’s international standing (and probably not meaningfully impede Iran’s nuclear development).
The points Leverett makes in this article are essential to absorb. There are few very good options on Iran — and some are extremely dangerous. Picking the least harmful course requires thinking through all of the very worst possible outcomes.
What is at stake is not only Iranian nuclear pretensions but possibly a drastically reshuffled geopolitical order in which Americans wake up one day and realize that America is no longer the “essential nation” but has gone the way of Britain, with lofty ambitions and limited influence and means to pursue those ambitions.
— Steve Clemons