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Published On: Wed, Jul 8th, 2015

Obama’s Failure to Make the Strategic Case for an Iran Nuclear Deal: The Leveretts on CNN and CNBC

TND Guest Contributors:  Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett |

The Iran nuclear talks may be getting close to some sort of conclusion in Vienna, but American political and policy elites remain, to an appallingly large extent, clueless as to what is really at stake in the negotiations. (This was a significant theme yesterday in Hillary’s appearance on CNN, see here, and in Flynt’s appearance on CNBC, see here, to discuss the Vienna talks.) And, while the headline from a recent NBC News poll notes that Americans favor an Iran nuclear deal by a “2 to 1” margin, in fact, the polls shows that a plurality of Americans say they don’t know what to think about a possible Iran nuclear deal.

These observations underscore a point that we have been making for some time: President Obama has yet to make the case to his fellow Americans for why an Iran nuclear deal—and, beyond that, a potential realignment of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic—is not just profoundly in American interests, but is strategically imperative for the United States.

–This failure will almost certainly make it more difficult for Obama (and his successor) to implement a deal.

–Furthermore, this failure will severely circumscribe the strategic benefits that the United States can accrue from a deal.

At the moment, many American elites convey particular distress over the Obama administration’s inability simply to dictate the terms of a prospective United Nations Security Council resolution that would endorse a final nuclear agreement and, to help implement such an agreement, remove international sanctions previously authorized by the Council against the Islamic Republic.

–In its approach to drafting a new Security Council resolution, the Obama administration has been demanding that previously authorized limits on exports of conventional weapons and missile-related technology remain in place. Iran, for its part, resists any text that would imply its “acceptance” of continuing international sanctions. Moreover, Russia and China are not going along.

–Likewise, Moscow and Beijing have rejected the Obama administration’s demand that UN sanctions be lifted only for six months at a time, subject to renewal—renewal which the United States, on its own, could veto, thus realizing U.S. ambitions to be able to “snap” sanctions back into place without being blocked by Russia and China.

That the Obama administration has been pushing these positions reveals much of what is so fundamentally wrong with the U.S. approach to diplomacy with Iran. As Flynt pointed out on CNBC, “This was an approach that not only were the Iranians going to object to it, but I don’t think the administration ever had a serious chance of getting consensus within the P5+1, among the permanent members of the Security Council…It was foolish, really, for the administration to take those positions on those issues.” Yet these are the positions the administration took, and now it must either find a way to walk back from them or (foolishly) embrace diplomatic impasse.

Of course, this reflects weakness on Obama’s part—but not the sort of weakness for which neoconservatives and others constantly lambaste him. As Hillary noted on CNN,

“We have tried [the interventionists’] version of strength—invading Iraq; invading Libya; occupying Afghanistan for more than a decade; arming, training, and funding various jihadis in Syria and all across the Middle East. And all it has brought us is damage to ourselves.

The real strength would be, just like Nixon and Kissinger went to China and accepted the People’s Republic of China, we need to go to Tehran, as we wrote in our book, and make our peace with Iran. It will help us. It will resurrect our position in the Middle East and around the world. And if we don’t, we will see ourselves continue to flail across the Middle East and around the world…

The Islamic Republic of Iran is here to stay, like the People’s Republic of China. What we need to recognize is that rising Iran, just like rising China, is a strong, independent power. And we need to work with them, not constantly try to bring them down and align with other countries like Saudi Arabia that get us into strategic disaster after strategic disaster.”

But that is precisely what Obama has been unwilling to do. Could the United States still “walk away” from the process? As Hillary said on CNN, “A decision by the United States to ‘walk away,’ to cut off talks with Iran would be just as strategically damaging, if not more so, to the United States than the decision to invade Iraq. It would have enormously devastating consequences for the United States in the Middle East, keep us on a trajectory to get into one never-ending, unwinnable war after another. And it would have repercussions for us globally, in economic terms and military terms.”

Stay tuned.

TND Guest Contributors:  lskdjfas fas fasdf asfdasf

The Iran nuclear talks may be getting close to some sort of conclusion in Vienna, but American political and policy elites remain, to an appallingly large extent, clueless as to what is really at stake in the negotiations.  (This was a significant theme yesterday in Hillary’s appearance on CNN, see here, and in Flynt’s appearance on CNBC, see here, to discuss the Vienna talks.)  And, while the headline from a recent NBC News poll notes that Americans favor an Iran nuclear deal by a “2 to 1” margin, in fact, the polls shows that a plurality of Americans say they don’t know what to think about a possible Iran nuclear deal.

These observations underscore a point that we have been making for some time:  President Obama has yet to make the case to his fellow Americans for why an Iran nuclear deal—and, beyond that, a potential realignment of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic—is not just profoundly in American interests, but is strategically imperative for the United States.

–This failure will almost certainly make it more difficult for Obama (and his successor) to implement a deal.

–Furthermore, this failure will severely circumscribe the strategic benefits that the United States can accrue from a deal.

At the moment, many American elites convey particular distress over the Obama administration’s inability simply to dictate the terms of a prospective United Nations Security Council resolution that would endorse a final nuclear agreement and, to help implement such an agreement, remove international sanctions previously authorized by the Council against the Islamic Republic.

–In its approach to drafting a new Security Council resolution, the Obama administration has been demanding that previously authorized limits on exports of conventional weapons and missile-related technology remain in place.  Iran, for its part, resists any text that would imply its “acceptance” of continuing international sanctions.  Moreover, Russia and China are not going along.

–Likewise, Moscow and Beijing have rejected the Obama administration’s demand that UN sanctions be lifted only for six months at a time, subject to renewal—renewal which the United States, on its own, could veto, thus realizing U.S. ambitions to be able to “snap” sanctions back into place without being blocked by Russia and China.

That the Obama administration has been pushing these positions reveals much of what is so fundamentally wrong with the U.S. approach to diplomacy with Iran.  As Flynt pointed out on CNBC, “This was an approach that not only were the Iranians going to object to it, but I don’t think the administration ever had a serious chance of getting consensus within the P5+1, among the permanent members of the Security Council…It was foolish, really, for the administration to take those positions on those issues.”  Yet these are the positions the administration took, and now it must either find a way to walk back from them or (foolishly) embrace diplomatic impasse.

Of course, this reflects weakness on Obama’s part—but not the sort of weakness for which neoconservatives and others constantly lambaste him.  As Hillary noted on CNN,

“We have tried [the interventionists’] version of strength—invading Iraq; invading Libya; occupying Afghanistan for more than a decade; arming, training, and funding various jihadis in Syria and all across the Middle East.  And all it has brought us is damage to ourselves.

The real strength would be, just like Nixon and Kissinger went to China and accepted the People’s Republic of China, we need to go to Tehran, as we wrote in our book, and make our peace with Iran.  It will help us.  It will resurrect our position in the Middle East and around the world.  And if we don’t, we will see ourselves continue to flail across the Middle East and around the world…

The Islamic Republic of Iran is here to stay, like the People’s Republic of China.  What we need to recognize is that rising Iran, just like rising China, is a strong, independent power.  And we need to work with them, not constantly try to bring them down and align with other countries like Saudi Arabia that get us into strategic disaster after strategic disaster.”

But that is precisely what Obama has been unwilling to do.  Could the United States still “walk away” from the process?  As Hillary said on CNN, “A decision by the United States to ‘walk away,’ to cut off talks with Iran would be just as strategically damaging, if not more so, to the United States than the decision to invade IraqIt would have enormously devastating consequences for the United States in the Middle East, keep us on a trajectory to get into one never-ending, unwinnable war after anotherAnd it would have repercussions for us globally, in economic terms and military terms.”

Stay tuned.

# # # #

Click here to learn about “Going to Tehran,” co-authored by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett.  This article originally appeared at the “Going to Tehran” website and is reprinted with permission.

About the authors:

flynt_leverettFlynt Leverett is a professor at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs and is a Visiting Scholar at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

Dr. Leverett is a leading authority on the Middle East and Persian Gulf, U.S. foreign policy, and global energy affairs. From 1992 to 2003, he had a distinguished career in the U.S. government, serving as Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and as a CIA Senior Analyst. He left the George W. Bush Administration and government service in 2003 because of disagreements about Middle East policy and the conduct of the war on terror.

Dr. Leverett has written extensively on the politics, international relations, and political economy of the Middle East and Persian Gulf. In a series of monographs, articles, and opinion pieces (many co-authored with Hillary Mann Leverett), he has challenged Western conventional wisdom on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy and internal politics, documented the historical record of previous Iranian cooperation with the United States, and presented the seminal argument in American foreign policy circles for a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain”. His new book is Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic(also co-authored with Hillary Mann Leverett).

Dr. Leverett has published opinion pieces in many high-profile venues, including The New York Times, POLITICO, and CNN, and contributes frequently to Foreign Policy. He has been interviewed about Iran and its geopolitics on leading public affairs programs around the world, includingCharlie Rose, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Empire and Riz Khan (Al Jazeera English), Viewpoint(Abu Dhabi Television), Spotlight (Russia Today) and Washington Journal (C-Span), as well as in leading publications such as Der Spiegel and Le Monde. Along with Hillary Mann Leverett, he was featured in the PBS Frontline documentary, “Showdown With Iran”, and profiled in Esquiremagazine.

Dr. Leverett has spoken about U.S.-Iranian relations at foreign ministries and strategic research centers in Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. He has been a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University.

Dr. Leverett holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University and is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

# # # #

hillary-mann-leverettHillary Mann Leverett is a Senior Professorial Lecturer at the American University in Washington, DC and a Visiting Scholar at Peking University in Beijing, China. She has also taught at Yale University, where she was a Senior Lecturer and inaugural Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She is also CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. Her new book is Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic (co-authored with Flynt Leverett).

Mrs. Leverett has more than 20 years of academic, legal, business, diplomatic, and policy experience working on Middle Eastern issues. In the George W. Bush Administration, she worked as Director for Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council, Middle East expert on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and Political Advisor for Middle East, Central Asian and African issues at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. From 2001-2003, she was one of a small number of U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida and Iraq. In the Clinton Administration, Leverett also served as Political Advisor for Middle East, Central Asian and African issues for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Associate Director for Near Eastern Affairs at the National Security Council, and Special Assistant to the Ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and a Watson Fellowship, and in 1990-1991 worked in the U.S. embassies in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt and Israel, and was part of the team that reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait after the first Gulf War.

Ms. Leverett has published extensively on Iran as well as on other Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian, and Russian issues. She has spoken about U.S.-Iranian relations at Harvard, MIT, the National Defense University, NYU, the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, and major research centers in China. She has appeared on news and public affairs programs on BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera (Arabic and English), and was featured in the highly acclaimed BBC documentary, Iran and the West. She appeared in the PBS Frontline documentary, “Showdown With Iran”, and was profiled in Esquire magazine. Her articles, often co-written with Flynt Leverett, have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, Politico, the Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, the Washington Monthly, and The International Spectator. She has provided expert testimony to the U.S. House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

Mrs. Leverett holds a Juris Doctor from Harvard University and a Bachelor of Arts in Near Eastern Studies from Brandeis University.

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