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Ruthless Iran: Can a Deal Be Made?

Mohammad Hassanzadeh/Fars News Agency/AP Images
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his protégé Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei at a press conference in Tehran, March 2013

“It is critical,” the Leveretts write, “for Americans and other Westerners to recognize that the Islamic Republic is not going away.” This is sound advice. Through ruthlessness the regime weathered the 2009 storm. Iran is still combustible, its currency battered. Another eruption is always possible. But to bet on sanctions or covert action or threats of war tipping the country into upheaval is a mistake. The apparatus of the entrenched revolutionary elite—its web of moneyed interests and its intelligence and security forces—is strong.

The current Iranian regime’s various power centers distinguish it from classic dictatorships based on personality cults. Leaders as different as Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Moussavi challenge the system only to be co-opted or silenced. The battered economy is adaptable. Iranians are entrepreneurial. Oil and gas are abundant. Women resent the severe constrictions on them but, as the Leveretts point out, have used new educational opportunities to excel in academia and professional life. Repression intensifies then ebbs.

Iran will hold another presidential election in June. In all likelihood the regime will emerge intact from it, with much apathy on the part of voters. Ahmadinejad, at his term limit, will be gone, having generated a lot of noise and nuisance and mistreatment of dissidents but little else. Once strictly aligned with the ummah, or community of believers, and obsessed with a possible reappearance of the hidden imam or Mahdi, Ahmadinejad has reinvented himself as a man of the people opposed to the religious traditionalists and is pushing his handpicked presidential candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to outmaneuver them. The real test to the system will come in engineering a succession to Khamenei, the seventy-three-year-old supreme leader, but no one can say when that will happen.

Meanwhile the centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow spin. President Obama has made it clear he will go to war rather than allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, a development he now says is more than a year away. As the president put it in Jerusalem, while expressing a strong preference for diplomacy, “America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.” His policy is prevention, not containment. Israel continues to set its “red line” in a different place: nuclear “breakout” capacity, or Iran’s attainment of the means and wherewithal to produce a bomb in short order. Iran, enriching to 4 percent for a dysfunctional power plant, and to near 20 percent for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) used to make medical isotopes, insists it has no intention to produce bomb-grade material (a 90 percent enrichment level). “We consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful,” Khamenei said last year, meaning it violates Islamic precepts.

Western powers are skeptical because of past Iranian deception and they point to several indications that the Iranians are acquiring the technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons: hence the imposition of ever tougher sanctions. Western intelligence agencies have not, however, detected an Iranian decision to go for a bomb. Congress is in a bellicose mood. The president does not want war in Iran just as he extracts America from the long war in Afghanistan. The situation is full of danger. As John Limbert, a former US hostage in Iran, has observed, Iran sees America as “belligerent, sanctimonious, Godless and immoral, materialistic, calculating, bullying, exploitive, arrogant and meddling.” America, in turn, sees Iran as “devious, mendacious, fanatical, violent and incomprehensible.” One thing seems certain even as nuclear negotiations have begun again. The next eighteen months will bring another crescendo of tension over possible war.

At this critical juncture, the Leveretts make several important points about the nuclear program and the failed Western response to it. They grasp its political centrality within a revolutionary system whose ideological core is independence from the Western powers. They argue persuasively that Iran’s intent is to achieve a nuclear threshold similar to Japan’s as a form of strategic leverage and a demonstration of technological prowess, rather than to make a bomb with all the danger inherent in that step. They suggest that, given an Iranian psychology that bristles at domineering Western attitudes, “the notion that sanctions and other economic pressure will generate strategic leverage over Tehran’s decision making is counterhistorical.” They argue that Obama’s “efforts at engagement have been almost completely rhetorical.” And, opposing a war of dubious efficacy and immense strategic and human cost, they write: “Instead of thinking about starting another war in the Middle East, American decision makers need to acknowledge that the United States has to come to terms with the Islamic Republic.”

But how? Khamenei, who decides policy, has not decided that the anti-American position he has used to sustain a tired revolutionary order can be safely dismantled. If “Death to America” goes, what is left? The Leveretts argue for a new move by Obama comparable to Nixon’s going to China, which would transform the Middle East. Certainly the exclusive focus on the nuclear issue in Iran diplomacy has been unhelpful, but the kind of grand bargain they envisage—in which Iran would even help create peace between Israel and Palestine—seems utterly fanciful at this stage.

Where their book is more helpful is in pointing to one particular lost opportunity and illustrating what it says about Western myopia. In early 2010, Turkey and Brazil, both then nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council, stepped forward as possible mediators on the nuclear question, and on April 20, 2010, Obama sent nearly identical letters to his Turkish and Brazilian counterparts. The letter to the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was later leaked by a Brazilian website. Its key paragraph, regarding Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) and possible Western provision of 20 percent enriched fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, reads as follows:

There is a potentially important compromise that has already been offered. Last November, the IAEA conveyed to Iran our offer to allow Iran to ship its 1,200 kg of LEU to a third country—specifically Turkey—at the outset of the process to be held “in escrow” as a guarantee during the fuel production process that Iran would get back its uranium if we failed to deliver the fuel. Iran has never pursued the “escrow” compromise and has provided no credible explanation for its rejection. I believe that this raises real questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions, if Iran is unwilling to accept an offer to demonstrate that its LEU is for peaceful, civilian purposes. I would urge Brazil to impress upon Iran the opportunity presented by this offer to “escrow” its uranium in Turkey while the nuclear fuel is being produced.

Less than a month later, on May 17, 2010, Lula and Prime Minister Recep Erdo˘gan of Turkey delivered the proposal for the escrow deal. After negotiations in the Iranian capital, an agreement called the Tehran Declaration was reached. It contained four central points. First, the three countries recalled “the right of all State Parties, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” Second, Iran would transfer 1,200 kilograms of LEU to be held in escrow in Turkey within one month. Third, pending their approval of the Tehran Declaration, the IAEA, France, Russia, and the United States (the Vienna Group) would agree to provide 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor to Iran within one year. Fourth, if the terms were not met by the Vienna Group, Turkey would transfer the LEU back to Iran (which maintained legal possession of the material).

This proposal, to the fury of Brazil and Turkey, whose leaders felt used, was immediately rejected by the United States for various reasons, including that it did not freeze Iran’s enrichment at the 20 percent level. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tabled a US-drafted Security Council resolution the next day imposing further sanctions; it was adopted the next month. From that moment, as the Leveretts write, “Iran policy has grown ever more coercive.”

Looking back now—at a time when it is widely recognized that no deal that fails to recognize Iran’s right to low-level, strictly monitored enrichment is conceivable—the question must be asked: Was the Tehran Declaration, whatever its shortcomings, really so far from Obama’s proposal and so unworkable as a basis for trust-building that it had to be summarily dismissed? Once again, the limits of pressuring Iran are becoming clear. Nobody has said it better than the thirty-five former ambassadors and senior officials who recently signed an important report by the Iran Project:

After 30 years of sanctioning and trying to isolate Iran, it seems doubtful that pressure alone will change the decisions of Iran’s leaders. Meanwhile, there appear to be risks associated with reliance on this approach. A strengthened diplomatic track that includes the promise of sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable cooperation could help to end the standoff and produce a nuclear deal.2

The Leveretts might have made a strong case for such creative diplomacy. A pity, then, that they see dark conspiracy in every US failing—and no failings on the other side. They blame America’s “imperial turn” and even suggest that President Obama’s “attempt to salvage Washington’s failed drive for regional hegemony could wind up doing more damage to American strategic prospects than George W. Bush’s debacles did.” They blame “liberal imperialists” (John Mearsheimer’s phrase), who, in the Leveretts’s telling, seem to include everyone from Secretary of State John Kerry to Leslie Gelb and Tom Friedman. They blame the neocons, of course, and they blame the Israel lobby, embodied by institutions like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where, as a note acknowledges, Hillary Mann Leverett once worked (and, as is not mentioned, wrote a paper in 1998 denouncing “Iranian links to international terrorism”).

They also blame the Iranian diaspora. And, in customary egregious style, they write that all four of these groups “use human rights issues as a tool to support American dominance over the Islamic Republic.” In the land of the Kahrizak Detention Center, scene of the worst abuses in 2009, and Evin Prison, human rights are a grave issue involving brutal mistreatment, not a “tool.”

Iran has been widely portrayed in the United States as an incarnation of evil. The Leveretts might have offered a counterbalancing account. Instead they have fallen prey to their own dangerous mythology of a benign Iranian order loved by its citizens. Their book is a disservice to truth and a betrayal of all the brave Iranians who, for more than a century now, have been seeking a political order that provides a genuine reconciliation of freedom, representative government, and faith.


Going To Which Iran? July 11, 2013

  1. 2

    “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy,” April 17, 2013; available at theiranproject.org. 

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