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Hillary Mann Leverett

Demanding What You Can’t Get: Obama’s Gamble with the Iran Talks in Vienna

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As nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna extend past yet another (largely US-imposed) deadline, the dysfunctionality of the Obama administration’s approach becomes increasingly apparent. Since April, when the parties announced a set of “parameters” for a final deal, senior administration officials have staked out public positions on the most important unresolved issues that, frankly, are inconsistent with what was agreed in April. These include a US demand for open-ended retention of a conventional arms embargo and other aspects of the United Nations Security Council-authorized sanctions regime.

There has never been any serious prospect that these US positions could actually provide bases for negotiated outcomes. Take, for example, the Obama administration’s demand for open-ended retention of a conventional arms embargo and other aspects of the United Nations Security Council-authorized sanctions regime against Iran. Not only does Tehran object to this demand; Russia and China—like the United States, veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—do, too.

The Obama administration defined stark stances on the future of UN sanctions and some of the other outstanding issues ostensibly to rebut charges of “weakness” from domestic opponents and to deflect criticism from traditional US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that it is “appeasing” Iran.
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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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Reality Check: America Needs Iran

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Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was announced last week, the Obama administration—echoing previous pledges that nuclear talks with Tehran do not presage a US-Iranian “grand bargain”—has assiduously reaffirmed that progress on the nuclear issue does not signal a wider diplomatic opening.

Such a posture ignores an overwhelming strategic reality: America’s position in the Middle East is in free fall, and the only way out is to realign US relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington must do this as purposefully as it realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, when it struggled to extricate America from the self-inflicted debacle of the Vietnam War and to renew its diplomatic options, for the Cold War’s last phase and beyond. By not using nuclear diplomacy as a catalyst for broader, “Nixon to China” rapprochement with Iran, Obama and his team ensure further erosion of America’s standing as a great power, in the Middle East and globally.

US engagement in the Middle East over the past quarter century is a textbook example of what Paul Kennedy famously described as “imperial overstretch”—a great power’s expansion of strategic ambitions and commitments beyond its capacity to sustain them.
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Sami Al-Arian and the Defining Moral and Political Challenge of Our Time

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Earlier this week, the US government deported our friend and colleague, Dr. Sami Al-Arian, from the United States. Turkey has granted him sanctuary.

Since we first met Dr. Al-Arian a few years ago, he and his family have set standards for faithfulness, moral steadfastness, and commitment to truth to which we can only aspire. More broadly, the US government’s treatment of Dr. al Arian underscores an urgent reality: how the West treats Muslims—in the Middle East, where they are the overwhelming majority, and in diaspora communities in the West itself—is the defining moral and political challenge of our time. The US government’s actions against Sami Al-Arian and his family should remind all of us how badly the United States is failing that challenge.

Sami Al-Arian was targeted by the US government because, during the 1990s, he emerged as one of the most prominent and effective advocates for Palestinian rights that US officials had ever faced. To offer some insight into his case and what it means, we highlight here two pieces. One, by Glenn Greenwald and his colleague at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain, see here, assesses the US government’s case against Dr. Al-Arian as a glaring example of post-9/11 “America’s eroding democratic values.” This article explains how, as “part of a broader post-9/11 campaign by the US government to criminalize aid and support to Palestinians,” Dr. Al-Arian was “indicated on multiple counts of providing ‘material support’ to [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] and fundraising on their behalf in the United States.”
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China Looks West: What Is at Stake in Beijing’s ‘New Silk Road’ Project

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Not even two years into what will almost certainly be a ten-year tenure as China’s president, Xi Jinping has already had an impact on China’s foreign policy: standing up for what many Chinese see as their nation’s territorial sovereignty in maritime boundary disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, proposing a “new model of great power relations” to guide relations with the United States, and presiding over the consolidation of what Xi himself calls a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Russia. But the most consequential diplomatic initiative of Xi’s presidency may turn out to be his calls to create a “New Silk Road Economic Belt” and a “Maritime Silk Road of the 21st Century”: vast infrastructure and investment schemes aimed at expanding China’s economic connections to—and its political influence across—much of Eurasia. 

Successful implementation of Xi’s “one belt, one road” initiative is likely to be essential for China to meet some of its most pressing economic challenges. It is also likely to be critical to realizing the interest of many Chinese elites in a more “balanced” foreign policy—that is, in a diplomatic approach less reflexively accommodating of U.S. preferences—and in fostering a more genuinely multipolar international order. 

Over 2,100 years ago, China’s Han dynasty launched what would become the original “Silk Road,” dispatching emissaries from the ancient capital of Xian in 138 BC to establish economic and political relations with societies to China’s west. For more than a millennium, the Silk Road of yore opened markets for silk and other Chinese goods as far afield as Persia—in the process extending Chinese influence across Central Asia into what Westerners would eventually come to call “the Middle East.”
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The Iranian Nuclear Issue and Sino-Iranian Relations

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As the world waits to see if Iran and the P5+1 reach a final nuclear agreement by November 24, we remain relatively pessimistic about the prospects for such an outcome.  Above all, we are pessimistic because closing a comprehensive nuclear accord will almost certainly require the United States to drop its (legally unfounded, arrogantly hegemonic, and strategically senseless) demand that the Islamic Republic dismantle a significant portion of its currently operating centrifuges as a sine qua non for a deal.

While we would love to be proved wrong on the point, it seems unlikely that the Obama administration will drop said demand in order to close a final agreement.

Alternatively, a final deal would become at least theoretically possible if Iran agreed to dismantle an appreciable portion of its currently operating centrifuges, as Washington and its British and French partners demand.  However, we see no sign that Tehran is inclined to do this.  Just last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi reiterated that, in any agreement, “all nuclear capabilities of Iran will be preserved and no facility will be shut down or even suspended and no device or equipment will be dismantled.”

Still, almost regardless of the state of U.S./P5+1 nuclear diplomacy with Iran a month from now, the Islamic Republic’s relations with a wide range of important states are likely to enter a new phase.  Among these states, China figures especially prominently.
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America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East

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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

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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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