The U.S. needs a completely different approach to Iran

By Flynt and Hillary Leverett
January 31, 2013

As Washington and its great power partners prepare for more nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration and policy elites across the political spectrum talk as if America is basically in control of the situation. Sanctions, we are told, are inflicting ever-rising hardship on Iran’s economy. Either Tehran will surrender to U.S. demands that it stop enriching uranium or, at some point, the American military will destroy Iranian nuclear installations.

This is a dangerous delusion, grounded in persistent American illusions about Middle Eastern reality. Because of failed wars-cum-occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan; a war on terror that has turned Muslim societies ever more firmly against U.S. policy; and de facto support for open-ended Israeli occupation of Arab populations, America’s position in the region is in free fall. Increasingly mobilized publics will not tolerate continuation of such policies. If, in this climate, the United States launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, the blowback against American interests will be disastrous. Nonetheless, that is where our current strategy – negotiating on terms that could not possibly interest Iran while escalating covert operations, cyber-attacks, and economic warfare against it – leads.

For its own interests, Washington must take a fundamentally different approach. President Obama needs to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran as thoroughly as President Nixon realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. Simply “talking” to Iran will not accomplish this.

Every American administration since the Iranian Revolution has talked to Tehran, usually to ask its help on particular U.S. concerns. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations sought Iran’s help to free American hostages in Lebanon. The Clinton administration coordinated with Tehran to arm beleaguered Bosnian Muslims when U.S. law prevented Washington from doing so. After 9/11, Iran cooperated with the George W. Bush administration against al Qaeda and the Taliban – a dialogue in which Hillary Mann Leverett participated for nearly two years.

In all these episodes, Washington got most of what it specifically asked for. But, each time, Washington pocketed Tehran’s cooperation, terminated dialogue, and used the purported “failure” of diplomacy to raise tensions, impose more sanctions, and come ever closer to confrontation.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, then-Senator Obama pledged – as part of a broader commitment to end the “mindset” that produced the 2003 Iraq invasion – to engage Iran. As he embarks on his second term, President Obama is in danger of discrediting engagement by saying that he tried but failed to reach out to Tehran when in fact he has never seriously tried.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has participated in multilateral nuclear talks with Iran – and used Iran’s unwillingness to surrender to U.S. demands as a reason to impose the most draconian sanctions on a country since sanctions on Iraq during 1991-2003 killed more than one million Iraqis, and to come ever closer to regime change as the ultimate goal of America’s Iran policy. While U.S. officials excoriate Tehran for either “playing for time” or being too internally conflicted to negotiate seriously, it is Washington that has not been diplomatically serious. Iran has consistently been prepared to accept more intrusive monitoring of – and perhaps negotiated limits on – its nuclear activities, if Western powers would in turn recognize its right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.

But Obama – like his predecessor – refuses to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich. For this would require acknowledging the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests – and as a rising regional power unwilling to subordinate its foreign policy to Washington (as, for example, Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak). No American president since the Iranian Revolution – not even Barack Obama – has been willing to deal with the Islamic Republic in this way.

Yet we return from our latest visit to Iran convinced this is the only way diplomacy can succeed. No one who has walked the streets of Tehran, seen that Iran’s economy is not imploding, and talked with a range of Iranians could think that sanctions – as severe as they are and might become – will compel either Iran’s collapse or its surrender. The only thing that will work is accepting the Islamic Republic and acknowledging its interests and rights – including safeguarded enrichment.

Accepting a rising regional power as a legitimate entity pursuing its interests in a fundamentally rational and defensive way is how Nixon and Henry Kissinger enabled the historic opening to China in the early 1970s. Their achievement was not to “talk” to Beijing; Washington had been doing that for years, through ambassadorial-level discussions. Their achievement was to accept – and persuade Americans to accept – the People’s Republic and its leaders as (in Nixon’s words) “pursuing their own interests as they perceive these interests, just as we follow our own interests as we see them,” and to work with them on that basis.

Nixon’s initiative saved America’s position in Asia after the draining disaster of Vietnam and restored Washington’s global leadership. If Obama accepted the Islamic Republic in the same way, an equally thorough realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations would be possible.

Ayatollah Khamenei and the three Iranian presidents elected over the course of Khamenei’s 22-year tenure as Supreme Leader have all said that they are open to better relations with America – but only on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and American acceptance of the Islamic Republic. Today, engaging Iran on this basis is Obama’s single biggest foreign policy challenge. It’s also the only way for him to rescue America’s position in the Middle East and avert strategic catastrophe in his second term.

PHOTO: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes a V-sign during the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the Rule of Law at the United Nations headquarters in New York September 24, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz


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For many years the US lived with the Soviet Union in possession of thousands of nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missles, aimed right at American cities.

The Soviet press, for example the official newspaper Pravda, routinely published major editorials calling for the destruction of imperialist America, the capitalist exploiter of mankind.

Yet Russia for all its rhetoric, was run by human beings, and as human beings do, even fanatical communists, they considered their own interests, and their families. They never used any of their thousands of nuclear weapons on anybody.

The same with Chinese communists. They have nuclear missles. They, too, have families and children they love. And so too with Iranians Moslems. They too have families and children they love.

But the cleverest Hollywood script writers and propagandists on Earth reside in Israel, and they have the world believing that Iran, who has invaded nobody, would immediately use a nuclear weapon if it had one.

Israel itself, constantly threatening to strike Iran, is driving the world toward war. Israel, the great criminal nation, steals more land from defenseless Palestinians every day, while cleverly diverting our attention by pointing their finger at Iran.

Israel, who every day steals land, who bulldozes homes, cuts down olive tree groves, who kills Palestinian children with tanks and helicopter. This same Israel cleverly points their finger at Iran, who steals nobody’s land, and invades nobody.

Of all the nations that possess nuclear arms (Israel, America, France, England, India, Pakistan, Russia, China) Iran would be a safer bet to be responsible and rational.

It was only America who has used its nuclear weapons on fellow humans, when we dropped two of them on Japan after she was already defeated, at the end of WWII. General Eisenhower was very much against it.

The world will be better off if Iran DOES have a nuclear deterrent. Iran is a huge country with 73 million people. The sooner Iran has nuclear missles to defend itself, the sooner the threat of war will recede.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Now really, are the authors of this story actually saying Iran is NOT trying to get a nuclear weapon or develop a means to hit the US with nuclear weapons?
Seriously? Really? I must has misread the article.
Iran has openly stated that if Israel attacks Iran, Iran will attack 32 US military bases in the region and the US if they can. In other words Obama can tell the Israelis not to attack Iran, Netanyahu does it anyway, and Iran attacks our military bases for revenge?
By the way, the China policy worked out so well that the Chinese now have nuclear subs with nuclear weapons off our East and West coast, bases around the US, nuclear missiles targeting US cities, and a massive military build up.
Neville Chamberlain, is tha you and your wife using a different name, and spewing your peace fantasy on Reuters? It is those people that get us into world wars.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

This article is well written. However the Isreali lobby is what is preventing this from happening. Only when Isreal goes to war and is defeated can this happen. And it will happen soon.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Thank you.

It is refreshing to read the truth about Iran, especially in a Reuters article.

“Ayatollah Khamenei and the three Iranian presidents elected over the course of Khamenei’s 22-year tenure as Supreme Leader have all said that they are open to better relations with America – but only on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and American acceptance of the Islamic Republic.”

Anyone familiar with Iran’s history and disastrous relations with foreign governments — the latest and greatest being the ill treatement suffered from the US government — understands that what Iran really wants is mutual respect and equality with any nation that it deals with.

IF the US does that, our Iranian relations will improve.

Frankly, I don’t see how the Iranians have tolerated the US “hissy fit” over being tossed out of their country for so long. ALL of this is due entirely to the US interfering with the Iranian government. We owe the Iranian people an apology for what we have done to them, even before the overthrow of our puppet government.

We supposedly admire “democratic” rule, but then viciously suppress it when the people want a form of government that doesn’t conform to our standards.

We have no right to dictate terms to another sovereign nation, no matter what the reason.

Washington needs to grow up, and quickly, or we will end up with war in the Middle East quite soon.

I think Iran’s patience with the US is wearing very thin.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

The reasons why Muslims are against USA are different. Muslims have been looking at USA as a land of infidels since the First Barbary War in 1800s.

In March 1785, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman (or Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja). Upon inquiring “concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury”, the ambassador replied:

It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.

Posted by P.Sharma | Report as abusive

It’s overly dismissive to say that only one side is being rational and other side isn’t. America, Israel, and Iran are all trying to look out for their national interests as they see them, the problem lies in where their interests overlap.

Posted by areddy831 | Report as abusive

This is truly an outstanding, well-balanced, factual article with thoroughly workable and pragmatic suggestions for resolving this ridiculous enmity between us an Iran.

The Nixon-China analogy is quite apt and appropriate. And most importantly IT WILL WORK.

The question is why do so many others refuse to see this. Who can possibly benefit from this ongoing cold war between us and Iran?! Well, there IS israel and it has done all in its power stooping to threats and bribery to prevent any such rapprochement.

Posted by SchlomoGoldberg | Report as abusive

Utter and total dreck. What the US needs to do is stop paying lip service to these stoneage morons and wipe them from the earth.

Posted by AnselHazen | Report as abusive

I think the authors are delusional!! It is not just the US that demands Iran come clean on it nuclear program, but 6 major super powers!! They hid their nuclear program from the world until it was discovered in 2002. Iran has been calling for Israel destruction for 30 years. They continue to support multiple terrorist organizations around the world. They stone their women to death for committing adultery.

Iran leaders want to take over the middle east and impose its beliefs on the world. Most Iranians don’t even support their government and their crack down on dissent and their basic freedoms.

Posted by Samhead777 | Report as abusive

Reagan and Bush for intervention in Lebanon
You mean they talked with the leaders of the kidnappers instead of the thugs on the ground right?

/btw Iran is not a rational country- they say they have no homosexuals. They deny the holocaust. They you can be executed for denying islam (apostasy) and then insulting the Prophet. Sorry ignorance of reality and murdering those who deny their faith is not the act of a rational state actor.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

@ P.Sharma;

The fist country to recognize United States of America as an independent state was a Muslim nation. Your falsifications of history is not going to get you anywhere.

Posted by BluePlaneteer | Report as abusive

Lenin referred to people like Leverett’s as “Useful Idiots”. Except the Leverett’s are of the Shiite Islamofascist stripe. They not only have active members of the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji on their site, but they praise members of the regime and travel to Iran on their behalf. It is important for everyone and anyone to first and foremost recognize the types of individuals that we are dealing with here.

Posted by Sassan31 | Report as abusive

I’ll tell you what the definition of insanity is:
radical Islamists with an atom bomb.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

“After 9/11, Iran cooperated with the George W. Bush administration against al Qaeda and the Taliban – a dialogue in which Hillary Mann Leverett participated for nearly two years.”

Curious which side of the U.S./Iranian dialogue Leverett represented. Her article leaves this unclear.

Posted by legalize | Report as abusive

Standard polemic from the Leveretts.

A negotiation to avoid military conflict, ease sanctions that are hurting Iranians, and resolve the nuclear issue? Absolutely.

But that’s not what the priority of this article — or indeed the book the Leveretts are pushing.

Their narrative of world affairs, based on assertion rather than analysis, is the simplistic “US is losing, Iran is winning”.

Perhaps more importantly, their eulogy for the Iranian regime — which has almost no reliable information — sweeps aside questions about legitimacy, justice, and human rights.

That’s a shame. If the Leveretts devoted their energy to working for the good of Iranians on all fronts — not just their caricature of US-Iranian relations — they could do some good.

Instead, they play their parts in a Washington Punch-and-Judy show — neocons v. regime defenders — that does no good.

Posted by ScottLucas | Report as abusive

The reality of the Iran crisis is that it is a made up red herring for regime change, just like “WMDs” in Iraq was a made up red herring.

The facts are:

1) There is ZERO evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. This is the conclusion of all 16 US intelligence agencies AND Israeli intelligence.

2) There is ALMOST ZERO evidence that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program with the possible exception that Iran had a nuclear weapons FEASIBILITY STUDY ongoing during the time when Iran was afraid that Saddam Hussein in Iraq had one. Once the US overthrew Saddam and placed Shia political parties in control of Iraq in 2003, Iran promptly stopped that alleged feasibility program. At not time is there any evidence that Iran ever had an actual nuclear weapons development and deployment program.

3) Iran has no strategic or tactical use cases for nuclear weapons. It cannot compete with Israel, let alone the US, for nuclear parity, or even a credible threat absent at least some dozens of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are only useful in the context of a deterrent and they can only deter when there are either approximately the same number of weapons on each side or a sufficient number of weapons as to provide a credible threat of major infrastructure destruction of the opponent.

4) Iran cannot construct nuclear weapons without being detected doing so and attacked by at least Israel and the US (once Iran retaliates against Israel for any such attack.) Nor can Iran construct nuclear weapons while being attacked by the US.

5) The Iranian leadership is well aware of these facts (points 3 and 4 above) and has repeatedly confirmed that because of them they have no interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.

6) The Iranian leadership has explicitly issued a religious edict against the possession of nuclear weapons which has the force of law in Iran. They have also offered to make this religious edict into a binding legal treaty under international law.

7) Any issues brought up by the IAEA concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons program have either been debunked as forgeries by independent researchers or apply solely to Iran’s behavior prior to 2003, when it gave up its alleged feasibility program. And most of the pre-2003 allegations in turn are based on document retrieved from a laptop which has been debunked by independent investigators as a likely forgery.

8) Iran has had more intrusive inspections of its nuclear program by the IAEA than any other country in history. The IAEA continues to certify that there has been NO diversion of nuclear materials to military purposes.

9) Other countries – notably South Korea and Brazil – have had similar or even more serious alleged “violations” of their Safeguards Agreement as Iran and not had anywhere near the attention paid to them over it.

Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and will never have a nuclear weapons program. And the US knows it. Obama is lying to the US public about his motivations for sanctioning and threatening war on Iran just as George W. Bush did with regard to Iraq.

Posted by RichardHack | Report as abusive

Iran has a young, highly educated population in a land rich in needed natural resources and eager to create households, explore the world, and share their 3000 years of innovative governance and trade.

A savvy economist would look at such a demographic and see markets! pent up demand! mutual benefit! a desperately needed path out of US crippling debt!

US Congresscritters, drunk on zioncaine, look at Iran and see the Other — a nation full of children they would like to starve, bomb, assassinate, punish, and incite to riot.

Do dead people buy imported goods?

Who is the irrational party?

Posted by ChasMark | Report as abusive

We ring our hands about the growing power of Iran after conducting and ill advised war in Iraq that facilitated the rise in power that we now find so threatening. If we go to war with Iran, we only have ourselves to blame for creating the environment that was used to justify the war.

Posted by seeker656 | Report as abusive

US needs a completely different approach to everything.

Posted by waggg | Report as abusive

This is nothing but fantasy. You are comparing two totally different regimes in different times, locations and places. Its called cultural relativism. You can’t say they are same and will have the same outcome. More so, you seem to suggest that more nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be a good thing. This is not so. You honestly expect a nation that oppresses people, treats women like 2nd class citizens, hangs others for apostasy to be treated on equal footing as the rest of world? What hogwash. If that is the case, then we should not care if Germany starts killing Jews again, or if another Melosavik came to light. Let them be right? You are perpetuating nuclear war by pandering to a peaceful ideology and it will bite you if you don’t watch it. Iran is not Russia, China or another other nation. Iran is Iran. It needs to be qualmed before they have the power to do any real damage. Any person with a brain realizes you can’t trust religious fanatics running a country. You think you can sway them to peace when they murder their own citizens? This is madness. You don’t know the ways of the wolf, for you are not one, sheep.

Posted by Cranberries | Report as abusive

The Leveretts manage a long column about Iran and its uranium enrichment issues without a single mention of repeated Iranian threats to destroy Israel. So what should we think of these threats?

(a) Iran is a superior country like Germany.If Germany issued these threats we would take them seriously, or

(b) Iran is a lunatic, repressive state run by stone-age morons. There are no gay Iranians. Let’s not take anything they say seriously. But let them go ahead with that nuclear enrichment thingie. Or,

(c) This is all Israel’s fault. Refer to lunatic first comment for further clarification.

Posted by melk | Report as abusive

“But Obama – like his predecessor – refuses to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich. For this would require acknowledging the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests”

But what if the actions of a “legitimate political order”
extend to threats of the nuclear destruction of another country. And that these threats may become much more attainable if nuclear enrichment is achieved? Surely this issue is the primary one involved here? Stop threatening the destruction of Israel and the world will indeed treat Iran like a legitimate political order. How hard is that? The Leveretts don’t even discuss this.

Posted by melk | Report as abusive

Saying that Zionism will dissapear eventually is not the same as threatening to “wipe Israel from the face of the earth”.

Posted by jtsan | Report as abusive