FLYNT LEVERETT Joining New America Foundation


(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


16 comments on “FLYNT LEVERETT Joining New America Foundation

  1. Matthew says:

    Japan is excluded because Japan chooses not to take her rightful place on the world stage. WWII was a long time ago. It’s time for Japan to have its own foreign policy.


  2. koji watanabe says:

    Being in Japan who has a large stake in Iran not only in terms of 15% of its oil being imported from there but also is currently in the process of negotiation with her large oil concession,I do support Mr. Leverett’s eye-opening idea on grand bargain. Besides, it is hard to understand why such a big stakeholder in Iran as Japan being excluded from Iran task force which is P5 plus Germany.


  3. Matthew says:

    Shame on me! I confused Mr. Leverett with Patrick Clawson. No excuses. Please convey my apologies to Mr. Leverett.
    I googled Mr. Leverett and enjoyed his article.


  4. Steve Clemons says:

    Matthew — Thanks for your note, but you are mistaken. Flynt Leverett is about as opposite from neoconservatism as one can be. He’s a serious realist. Steve Clemons


  5. Matthew says:

    This is a bad day for the New America Foundation. This gentleman spoke recently at the Houston World Affairs Council. Just another war-mongering neo-con. What a shame.


  6. Nell says:

    Talk about excluded middles!
    “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.”
    What about active engagement with Iran, negotiations on specific aspects of nuclear capacity to be traded off for normalized relations and security guarantees? That is, real negotiations, not some “box to be checked off” on the way to sanctions and then military attack.


  7. larry birnbaum says:

    It seems obvious to me that we’re not going to be able to control world events in the future. We can’t control them now. Which just highlights the recklessness of this admin’s war on the UN, Geneva conventions, Kyoto, etc. etc. etc. We should be working to strengthen these international institutions so that the rules of the road 10 and 20 and 50 years from now reflect our values. That will be hugely in our interest.
    One narrower disagreement though: What is Leverett’s basis for believing that a US attack, if it came, wouldn’t “meaningfully impede Iran’s nuclear development?” That seems quite wrong to me.


  8. DonS says:

    Regarding the point that the US may wake up one day and find it resembles Great Britain in its decling influence and power, I’ll just repost what I said on the McCain thread below: “. . .one boggles at the hubris it takes to even mouth the words necessary to posit that ‘America’ is somehow still great and has so much to show the world — and Russia and China better line up behind us or else. Call me a humbug, but I think we’ll do well do save our own sorry ass much less the rest of the world.”
    My fear is that the necons would rather go out with a bang than a whimper. I’m in awe and thankful that such as yourself, Steve, are even willing to engage on some level with these excuses for human beings, much less diplomats.


  9. Marky says:

    Of course, the proper title of your conference should be “The Lowering Storm: a sober look at Iran and Armageddon”


  10. Marky says:

    I’d like to pose a hypothetical question.
    Suppose that Iran already had nuclear weapons, but Pakistan did not. Pakistan is the home of Bin Laden and A. Q. Khan, whom we know has the expertise to build nuclear weapons. How urgent would the case be for disarming Pakistan?
    Very urgent, no?
    In reality, Iran is probably further from possessing nuclear weapons than Saudi Arabia, who can simply buy nukes at their leisure.
    Why not forget about Iran and look at Pakistan, which is already past one of the endpoints mentioned? Why not engage in creative diplomacy to get both Pakistan and India to get rid of their nukes?
    Focusing on Iran is playing into Bush’s hands, as you well know.
    If the topic is Iran, let’s have a realistic discussion instead of this sandbox play which is desinged to Pollack us into another war.
    Here’s my proposed conference:
    “The oil in Kuzhestan. Who owns it—Iran or the USA?… We propose to look at both endpoints of this continuum, analyzing the risks to world stability in both of them”
    How about it? I’ll sign up.


  11. Marcia says:

    From what is public the neocon plan included Iran as a next target well before the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Control of the region is the issue, control, oil, imperial reign.
    Corporate interests have been declared American’ interests even though the standard of living and level of security of large portions of the population are falling. These very narrow interests are now upheld by military might, ground forces in Iraq, menace of air strikes, even nuclear, in Iran.
    The geopolitical reshuffling is already taking place, has already taken place mentally in many countries. The damage done since 2000 is astounding. Another two years before “regime change”in Washington, if it takes place, and we may see how accelerated changes have become in our time. The danger is “the wild horde” throning in the WH without rhyme or reason in a bubble of brute force and religious mysticism.
    This is also the first time in history an uncontrolled power is wavering with nuclear power at its disposal at the same time it is losing its influence.


  12. pkoso says:

    Curious here and naive enough to ask…
    Will there ever be any track to the consideration of a global NPT that seeks not to reduce, but to eliminate/make illegal nulcear weapons technology?


  13. skeeter says:

    If your conferences are going to live up to their billings and truly think out into the unthinkable realm, maybe you need to redefine your endpoints:
    “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.”
    You don’t need a serious discussion or a tremendous leap of the imagination to reach either “endpoint.” What I hope you would explore is what happens after either “endpoint” is reached (on the one end, retaliation by Iran and potential allies; on the other, nuclear blackmail, stalemate, or a little war?). The endpoints lie well beyond the pair that you have defined.
    And then I hope you would explore the only question that is really interesting: How do we avoid reaching either “endpoint”? I hope you will find people who are willing to think the unthinkable about defusing these issues. Is there someone with a deep understanding of Iran as it is today as well as the capacity to envision a peaceful resolution that would be beneficial to all parties?


  14. Chapter 15 says:

    I think that the importance of Iran at the SCO meeting is currently underestimated.
    I will have more details on this soon on my blog which covers the UN Secretary General’s race.
    Chapter 15


  15. pkoso says:

    As difficult as getting administration officials to think carefully, critically about this situation and, in the process, dump some of that Orwellian swagger…is the greater task of getting everyday Americans to consider, in broader terms, what it really means for the U.S to continue to operate unilaterally. Steve, you mention at the end of your post, the possibility of one day realizing that American relevance in the world has taken on a whole new meaning…in advance of that, how can we break through the destructive narrative of neocon hawkes and engage an American community ready, willing, and able to think for themselves?


  16. wag says:

    Here’s a policy proposal: respect Iran’s sovereignty, and stick to the NPT.
    You fat-headed imperialists are a real gas.


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