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Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Obama Fails to Make the Strategic Case for an Iran Nuclear Deal

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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. 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 US 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.
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Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Offensive, Iran’s ‘Proxy’ Strategy, and the Middle East’s New ‘Cold War’

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Riyadh’s war in Yemen marks a dramatic escalation in its efforts to roll back Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia portrays its Yemen campaign simply as a battle of “good” Arabs and Sunnis supporting Yemen’s legitimate government against “evil” Iranians trying to overthrow it via local Shi’a “proxies”—reiterating a generalized Saudi (and Israeli) narrative about Iran’s use of proxy allies to consolidate regional “hegemony.” More considered analysis shows that Iran’s “proxy” ties are part of an effective strategy to expand political participation in contested regional venues. While Saudi Arabia (like Israel) considers this a mortal threat, it is essential to effective conflict resolution. Riyadh’s intensely sectarian response—including its Yemen war—now fuels what some call a new Saudi-Iranian/Sunni’- Shi’a “Cold War” in the Middle East.


Riyadh’s increasingly destructive war in Yemen has sparked overripe discussion in Western capitals about Iran’s use of “proxies” to subvert otherwise “legitimate” Middle Eastern governments. Driving such discussion is a self-serving narrative, promoted by Israel as well as by Saudi Arabia, about Tehran’s purported quest to “destabilize” and, ultimately, “take over” the region.

Assessments of this sort have, of course, been invoked to justify—and elicit Western support for—Saudi intervention in Yemen. More broadly, the Israeli-Saudi narrative about Iranian ambitions is framed to prevent the United States from concluding a nuclear deal with Tehran—or, failing that, to keep Washington from using a deal as a springboard for comprehensively realigning US-Iranian relations.
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America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East

Saudi King Obama

While President Obama continues—at least for now—to resist redeploying large numbers of U.S. soldiers to fight the Islamic State on the ground, the military components of the anti-Islamic State strategy he has laid out effectively recommit the United States to its post-9/11 template for never-ending war in the Middle East. In the end, such an approach can only compound the damage that has already been done to America’s severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East by its previous post-9/11 military misadventures. 

Thirteen years after the fact, most of America’s political and policy elites have yet to grasp the strategic logic that motivated the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Certainly, al-Qa’ida was not averse to damaging America’s economy and punishing its people. But Osama bin Laden knew that effects of this sort would be finite, and thus of limited strategic value; he had no illusions about destroying “the American way of life.”

The real objective of the 9/11 attacks was to prompt American overreaction: to goad Washington into launching prolonged military campaigns against Muslim lands. These campaigns would galvanise popular sentiment across the Muslim world against the United States, mobilise Middle Eastern publics against regional governments (like the one in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia) that cooperate politically and militarily with it, and rally them in favor of jihadi fighters who resist American domination. Looking ahead, the al-Qa’ida leader anticipated that local backlash against U.S. overreaction to a terrorist provocation would ultimately undermine the regional foundations of America’s ability to project massive amounts of military force into the Middle East, compelling it to disengage from the region and go home.
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The Rise of the 'Petro-yuan' and the Slow Erosion of Dollar Hegemony

Yuan Dollar

For seventy years, one of the critical foundations of American power has been the dollar’s standing as the world’s most important currency. For the last forty years, a pillar of dollar primacy has been the greenback’s dominant role in international energy markets. Today, China is leveraging its rise as an economic power, and as the most important incremental market for hydrocarbon exporters in the Persian Gulf and the former Soviet Union to circumscribe dollar dominance in global energy—with potentially profound ramifications for America’s strategic position.       

Since World War II, America’s geopolitical supremacy has rested not only on military might, but also on the dollar’s standing as the world’s leading transactional and reserve currency. Economically, dollar primacy extracts “seignorage”—the difference between the cost of printing money and its value—from other countries, and minimises US firms’ exchange rate risk. Its real importance, though, is strategic: dollar primacy lets America cover its chronic current account and fiscal deficits by issuing more of its own currency—precisely how Washington has funded its hard power projection for over half a century.  

Since the 1970s, a pillar of dollar primacy has been the greenback’s role as the dominant currency in which oil and gas are priced, and in which international hydrocarbon sales are invoiced and settled. This helps keep worldwide dollar demand high. It also feeds energy producers’ accumulation of dollar surpluses that reinforce the dollar’s standing as the world’s premier reserve asset, and that can be “recycled” into the US economy to cover American deficits.
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What Gaza’s Crisis Shows About Israel’s Ambitions and America’s Decline

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As Israel’s military kills and injures hundreds of civilians in Gaza—whose population Israel is legally obligated to protect as an occupying power—people around the world, including in the United States, wonder why official Washington appears so indifferent to even the most graphic instances of “collateral damage.”

The primary reason is that most American policy elites still believe the United States needs to dominate the Middle East, and that Israeli military assertiveness is instrumentally useful to this end—a mindset the Israel lobby artfully reinforces.

Since World War II—and especially since the Cold War’s end—the US political class has seen Middle Eastern hegemony as key to their country’s global primacy. For two decades following Israel’s creation, it contributed little to this; thus, the United States extended it virtually no military or economic assistance, beyond negligible amounts of food aid.

Washington started providing substantial assistance to Israel only after it demonstrated a unilateral capacity, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, to capture and hold territory from Arab states allied, for the most part, with the Soviet Union. Support for Israel grew through the rest of the Cold War; after the Cold War, US policymakers doubled down on the US-Israeli “special relationship,” calculating that facilitating Israel’s military superiority vis-à-vis its neighbours would help solidify US post-Cold War dominance over the strategically vital Middle East.
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