Various scholars have sought to identify what the objective criteria are for a state to become and remain a great power—especially a dominant great power or hyperpower.   These include Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers:  Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York: Vintage Books, 1987); Amy Chua (Day of Empire:  How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall, New York: Doubleday, 2007), and Richard Jackson and Neil Howe (The Graying of the Great Powers:  Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2008).  What I will do here is discuss the model of how a great power rises and falls that each of these set forth, and then discuss what each of these models implies about what great powers are likely to rise and fall at present.

Kennedy’s Conjecture

In his classic book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy described how the rising economic strength of a state not fully engaged in international relations allowed it to gain politico-military strength vis-à-vis those that were more engaged and overextended, but then how its own subsequent politico-military overextension would in turn result in this state becoming weaker versus rising economic powers that were not (yet) overextended.

I well remember how when this book came out in 1987, it received tremendous publicity in the United States for forecasting the decline of the US as a great power.  Kennedy, though, also forecast how it would be difficult for the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Europe (then still in the form of the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union) to remain (or become) great powers.

In 1989-91, of course, it would be the Soviet Empire that would collapse.  In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous article, “The End of history?” in The National Interest, where he argued that this event would result in the inevitable triumph of democracy worldwide.  Since Kennedy’s forecast of decline did not seem to apply to the US, Kennedy’s book was quickly forgotten back then.

Looking back at Kennedy’s forecasts now, what is interesting is that all but one of those countries or international groupings whose future potential as a great power that he discussed then still clearly has the potential to become or remain a great power now.  These are China, Europe, Russia, and America.  Japan is the one country that he forecast could not be a dominant great power that appears unambiguously accurate.  Candidates for great power status that he missed back in 1987 include India (definitely) and Brazil (at least potentially).

What does applying Kennedy’s model to the present forecast?   1) America is clearly the great power that is the most overextended; 2) Europe now has the same problem as Europe did when Kennedy’s book was published:  an unwillingness to project force; and 3) the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—now appear to be adhering to Kennedy’s model for rising great powers:  growing economically while avoiding military engagements.  Whether Russia, India, and China will continue to avoid military engagements, though, is somewhat uncertain.

Chua’s Challenge

In her book Day of Empire, Amy Chua described how states that became and remained hyperpowers had more inclusive and tolerant regimes than their actual or potential competitors, thus allowing the former to more successfully harness the human resources needed to acquire and maintain this status.  But when tolerance in them declined, she warned, this presaged the subsequent loss of their hyperpower status.  This pattern, she argued, was the path taken by the Persian Empire, Roman Empire, Mongol Empire, Dutch Empire, and British Empire (among others).  America, she further argued, became a hyperpower after the end of the Cold War, but that rising intolerance in the US threatens this status.

Obviously, economic and military power is needed.  But if the attractiveness to others is a requisite for being a hyperpower (or even just a great power), what can be said about the attractiveness of our potential candidates to others at present?

The rise of anti-Americanism worldwide, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, suggests that America’s attractiveness is waning.  Although the election of Barack Obama led to hopes (or fears) that this trend could be reversed, his ability to make the positive changes that he has called for appears to be limited by the increasingly intolerant Republican Party which controls the House of Representatives and can block action in the Senate.

As Chua herself argues, China is quite an intolerant country, thus limiting its appeal to others.  As for Russia:  while the Tsarist Empire had significant cultural attractiveness and while the Soviet Union led an ideological movement that was highly attractive worldwide, the appeal of post-Soviet Russia to others (for better or worse) appears quite limited.  India’s cultural attractiveness is growing, but not in the countries neighboring it.  Perhaps Brazil may have this quality of attractiveness to others.  And very strangely, Japan combines a domestic intolerance of foreigners with the possession of a popular culture that has become wildly popular worldwide with young people

Although Chua argues otherwise, the entity with the greatest attractiveness to others at present may be the European Union.  It is the only entity which other countries not only want to join, but willingly alter their behavior for in order to do so.

Demography Is Destiny

Richard Jackson and Neil Howe see population decline and aging as negatively affecting the ability of great powers experiencing them to retain this status.  The implications of their model are straightforward:  the developed world is shrinking and aging while the developing world is growing and remaining relatively young.  In their view, Europe and Russia in particular are especially unlikely to be able to remain great powers.  Developing countries will have the potential to become great powers, but their very youthful populations will make them highly unstable.  Interestingly, America—with its growing population that is aging less rapidly than Europe’s or Russia’s (due to immigration and a higher birth rate) is likely to remain a great power, but will face growing challenges.

Subjective vs. Objective

While there are undoubtedly objective criteria that affect whether states become and remain great powers, public opinion, commentators, and policymakers in different countries often employ highly subjective criteria in making assessments about this.  Policymakers, commentators, and public opinion in various countries often maintain not only that their country deserves to be a great power, but also that because it deserves to be a great power, then it either is, will remain, or will become one.  Similarly, policymakers, commentators, and public opinion in one particular country often maintain that certain other countries do not deserve to be great powers, and therefore they will either not gain or retain this status.

Employing these subjective criteria, then, every country that wants to become or remain a great power can convince itself that it can do so.  Whether or not they actually can, though, is another matter.

The disposition of Crimea has an odd history.  At some point after the Bolshevik Revolution, it was assigned to the Russian Federation, but in 1954 Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine.  The majority of Crimea’s population, though, is Russian.  And ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russians there and in Russia itself have called for its return to Russia.  Ideally, the question of whether Crimea should belong to Ukraine or Russia, or be independent, should be decided by an internationally-monitored referendum.  What Putin has done is highly provocative, but it also has support on the ground.  The question now is whether he’ll go after other parts of eastern Ukraine where there are large Russian populations but where they are not a majority (Crimea is the only place in Ukraine where they are).  Obama’s reaction so far has been underwhelming.  On the other hand, I’m not sure what he can do.  

I recently received a query from Greek journalist Ειρήνη Μητροπούλου (Irini Mitropoulou) of Το Βήμα (To Vima) asking me to comment on whether I think that Russia is back as a major or even a super power in the global economy and the international arena.  In an article published in her newspaper on December 8, she was kind enough to include a quote from the much-longer-than-asked for response that  I sent back to her.  I am not sure, though, what part of my response she quoted from since it’s all Greek to me.  So here is my entire commentary in English:

Many see Russian President Vladimir Putin as having successfully built Russia into a major power both politically and economically.  The influential American business magazine, Forbes, even listed him as number one in its 2013 list of the world’s most powerful people.  But while Putin has succeeded in restoring the image of Russia as a great power that was shattered by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, that image is largely illusory.  Indeed, it is not clear that Putin will even be able to succeed in maintaining the illusion of Russia as a great power for much longer.

In the economic realm, Putin benefited from the steady rise in oil prices that occurred during his first stint as president (1999-2008).  While still high, oil prices have come down considerably since then.  More importantly, the leverage many believed Russia would gain over Europe through being its major gas supplier has eroded as a result of Europe’s ability to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, Algeria, and other sources.  Further, the increased possibility of improved ties between Iran and the West raises the prospect that Iranian gas will soon become available on the European market.  In addition, the increase in American petroleum production combined with Russia’s problems with maintain its current production levels are further eroding Moscow’s ability to leverage petroleum exports into political influence.

In the political realm, Russia’s weakness has been starkly revealed by the popular protest in Ukraine when pressure from Putin influenced that country’s president not to sign an association agreement with the EU.  The mark of a true great power is that other countries ally with it voluntarily.  Putin’s Russia has precious few such allies.  And Putin’s efforts to gain allies through intimidation either push countries toward the West or result in alliances that only last as long as unpopular leaders remain in power.

A prosperous, democratic Russia might be more successful in attracting allies—as well as customers and investors.  But so long as Putin’s stagnant authoritarian rule continues, Russia’s economic and political influence in the world appears destined to decline.


The latest issue of the German journal OSTEUROPA contains a virtual roundtable on Russia and Syria.  The editors sent a set of questions to six different scholars (including myself) and invited us each to pick from among them several to address.  Their questions and our responses were published by the journal in German. Here in English are my responses to the questions I chose to address:

OSTEUROPA:  The Syrian civil war has sectarian, ethnical, social, and geopolitical dimensions. It is an internal conflict, but regional and even global actors also play an important role. Moreover, in most of the states involved, Syria policy has a domestic function. Which of the conflict’s dimensions does Russian diplomacy emphasize? On which level (local, regional, global) is Moscow most engaged? Why?

Katz:  The Syrian conflict has been especially important for Moscow on the global and regional level as well as on the domestic Russian political level.  Moscow has identified Syria as the place where it seeks to halt American “unipolarism” if it can.  In addition, Moscow believes that however bad the Assad regime is, it is better than what Moscow sees as most likely to arise after its downfall:  a Sunni radical regime.  Finally, after so publicly backing Assad for so long, Putin does not want to be seen as giving in to U.S. demands that Moscow cooperate in bringing about his downfall.

OSTEUROPA:  Moscow argues that an international jihadist movement threatens order throughout the region, from the Caucasus via Syria to North Africa. Is this an actual danger? Does Moscow really fear such a jihadist movement or is it wilfully exaggerating the risk?

Katz:  It is not clear that this is an actual danger, but it does appear that Moscow really believes that it is one.

OSTEUROPA:  When Russia launched airstrikes against Georgia in 2008, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invoked not only the Russian Constitution, which calls for the protection of Russian citizens abroad, but also the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), a norm that is grounded in international law since 2005 and binds the international community to prevent or halt mass atrocity crimes. Is there any debate on R2P in Russia today (at least in the sense that, in Syria, the requirements for international measures of enforcement according to principle of R2P have not yet been met)?

Katz:  Russia has adopted a double-standard with regard to R2P.  While opposing Western intervention on the basis of R2P (as well as expressing deep scepticism about whether concern for R2P underlies it), Moscow reserves for itself the right to intervene in former Soviet republics on the basis of its unilateral assertion of an R2P justification without consulting the UN Security Council.

OSTEUROPA:  Russia has an interest in enforcing compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Why does Moscow refuse even limited air strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons?

Katz:  The Kremlin fears that if it agrees to this, the West will not limit itself to limited air strikes, but will give large-scale aid to the Syrian opposition to topple Assad.

OSTEUROPA:  Is Russia seriously interested in resolving the Syrian conflict? Does Moscow have concrete proposals for settling the conflict? Or is Moscow content with simply countervailing the United States?

Katz:  Moscow would like to see the Syrian conflict end through the Assad regime totally crushing its opponents, and thereby restoring “order.”  Until that occurs, Moscow seeks to block the U.S. and its allies from helping the Syrian opposition stop Assad from doing this.

OSTEUROPA:  What would a joint U.S.-Russian position on Syria look like? What would Washington have to do to convince Moscow to accept such a compromise?

Katz: Despite their agreement about placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control, Moscow and Washington agree on little else regarding Syria.  Their most crucial disagreement is about whether the Assad regime should remain in power or not.  It is doubtful that either will convince the other to adopt its view.

OSTEUROPA:  What role does Iran play in the conflict? Could Moscow help to resolve the conflict by using its connections in Tehran?

Katz:  Like Russia, Iran provides important support to the Assad regime.  If anything, Tehran is more committed to the Assad regime remaining in power than Moscow is.  This being the case, it is highly unlikely that Moscow could make use of its Iranian connections to resolve this conflict.  If, however, an Iranian-American rapprochement takes place, then Washington and Tehran may be able to work together to do so—and thereby force Moscow to go along with them or be completely isolated over Syria otherwise.

OSTEUROPA:  Could the involvement of the International Criminal Court serve to de-escalate the conflict?

Katz:  No.

I am posting here my lecture notes for a presentation I gave at the Kennan Institute/Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, on Monday, October 7, 2013:

Why has Moscow backed the Assad regime in Syria so strongly?

More than anything else, this appears to be the result of Russian President Putin’s conviction that this is the right thing to do—both in foreign policy terms and in Russian domestic political terms.

Putin has devoted considerable energy into reasserting Russia’s role as a great power, which declined markedly under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

One way in which Putin has sought to do this is through restoring Moscow’s ties with its Cold War era allies in the Middle East.  But these have either been not especially interested (i.e., Algeria), or have fallen from power—Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.  Bashar al-Assad is Moscow’s last remaining Arab ally.  If he falls, then, Moscow will have no allies there.

And as the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin has noted, “Russia’s stance on Syria is based, above all, on its leader’s largely traditional view of the global order.”  Keeping Assad in power is Moscow’s way of ensuring that it maintains some influence in the Middle East.

Further, Moscow anticipates that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria that will be anti-Russian as well as anti-Western.  Moscow, then, sees the West as having an interest in seeing that this does not happen—even if not all Western leaders recognize this.

And this concern about the rise of Sunni radicals in Syria feeds into Moscow’s concern about their possible rise in the Muslim regions of Russia as well as Central Asia.  Some might argue that local grievances on the part of Russian and Central Asian Muslims may account more for the rise of radicalism among them, and that outside jihadist forces don’t need the Assad regime in Syria to fall in order to help them.  But this is not how the Putin administration sees things.

There are other factors encouraging Russian support for the Assad regime:

–The Obama Administration’s clear unwillingness to become militarily involved in Syria or provide much support to the opposition has given a greater degree of freedom for Moscow to support Assad, and can be seen in Moscow as an indication that Washington too fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria.

–President Obama’s threat of a military strike at Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents in August 2013 was a departure from this pattern.  But Obama’s seeking Congressional authorization, Congress’s obvious unwillingness to grant it, and Obama’s quick acceptance of the Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control all showed Moscow (and many others) that Obama still does not want to intervene.

–There is also the Israeli factor.  Despite the Assad regime’s hostility toward Israel, alliance with Iran, and support for Hezbollah, Moscow understands that Israel also fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to a far more hostile regime in Damascus.  Moscow sees Israel as an ally in urging restraint on Washington.

–Further, despite Turkish and Arab public hostility toward Russian support for Assad, Moscow’s ties with Turkey and most Arab governments have not suffered notably.  Russian-Turkish trade booming; Putin and Erdogan seem to have agreed to disagree on Syria.

–The new military government in Egypt has soured on the Syrian opposition, and so this is not something that divides it from Moscow.

–While Moscow frequently cites what happened to the Gaddafi regime in Libya as reason for not allowing a Security Council resolution authorizing any use of force or even economic sanctions against Syria, Moscow gets along with the new government in Libya as well as anyone else has—notwithstanding the recent attack on the Russian embassy there.

–And, of course, Moscow and the Shi’a-led government in Iraq (with which Russian economic ties have grown) are basically on the same side in Syria.

Indeed, Moscow’s policy toward Syria has not appreciably damaged Russian relations with most Middle Eastern governments—with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Moscow sees these two as supporters of radical Sunni elements in Syria, elsewhere in the Arab world, Central Asia, and inside Russia itself.  (For their part, these two see Russia as allying with their Shi’a opponents in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.)  Their actions—or perhaps more accurately, Moscow’s interpretation of their actions—have only served to intensify Moscow’s desire to prevent the violent downfall of the Assad regime at the hands of Sunni radical forces.

There are, however, limits on what Russia can accomplish:

Moscow clearly wants to prevent a Western intervention in Syria as occurred in Libya.  And this goal appears likely to be met—not because of Russian ability to prevent it but because of the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to undertake it.

But while the West is unlikely to act to bring down the Assad regime, the war there is continuing with no end in sight.

Moscow’s preferred outcome to this conflict is similar to that which former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad achieved in 1982, the Algerian military achieved in the 1990’s, or what Putin and the Kadyrov clan accomplished in Chechnya:  the defeat of the Islamist opposition and the restoration of state security service control.

Yet even without Western intervention or major support for the opposition, this outcome appears highly unlikely to be achieved in Syria now.  The Assad regime may not be ousted, but the war is likely to continue on indefinitely despite Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government.  Moscow, then, is stuck in something of a quagmire.

Further, Russia is not in a strong position to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict.  It may be that nobody else is either.  But if a settlement to the conflict is to occur, it will probably require heavy involvement on the part of the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Should such an effort succeed, the influence of what are now the Assad regime’s adversaries will probably increase in Syria while that of its current supporters—including Russia—will probably decrease.

The possibility of an Iranian-American rapprochement could also complicate Russia’s Syria policy.  If such a rapprochement occurs, one element of it might well be Tehran reducing or even ending its support for Assad.  If this occurs, Moscow could find itself either virtually alone in supporting Assad, or playing little role in an Iranian-American agreement concerning Syria.

If, on the other hand, Iranian-American relations remain hostile and Iranian support for Assad continues, Moscow may not be in a position to effectively pressure Assad into making any concessions for resolving the conflict if he thinks that he can survive with the support of Iran and Hezbollah.

Thus, while Russia can help the Assad regime avoid being overthrown, it is not in a strong position to end the war either through helping Assad crush his enemies or providing the requisite incentives and disincentives for a successful conflict resolution effort.

Finally, if radical Islamist forces grow stronger inside the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus and Volga regions of Russia, and/or in Central Asia, then the fate of Assad—whether it is win, lose, or draw—will be of less concern for the Kremlin than dealing with what will be far more urgent matters.

“Shargh” Interview

The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an interview with me today.  The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article (of course) appeared in Farsi.  I am posting here the English-language interview:

Shargh:  You are one the rare expert that has seen Irano-amercian relation with an eye on their relations with other countries. In other world your analysis about Iran nuclear crisis always includes the elements of the importance of Russia, China? Visibly according to you Iranian position is subordinate to her relation with Eurasian powers, can we make such parallel with U.S. and Israel?

Katz:  I do not think that the Iranian position on the nuclear issue is subordinate to the Eurasian powers—or to anyone else!  If Iran’s position was subordinate to anyone, then it would either never have begun work in the nuclear realm or would have halted it long ago.  No nation, whether possessing nuclear weapons or not, wants another nation to acquire them.  Nations decide on their own whether it is in their interests to do so.  I think the same is true of Israel.  The U.S. really did not want it to acquire nuclear weapons, but it did so anyway.  But just as the possession of nuclear weapons did not prevent the Soviet Union from collapsing, the possession of nuclear weapons has not enabled Israel to resolve its relations with the Palestinians or other Muslims.

Shargh:  But after the victory of Hassan Rouhani, the language and the claimed aims are completely different from Ahmadinejad era. It is believed that this government is serious about solving blurred problem in nuclear crisis. What we can wait from the American side vis-à-vis this change?

Katz:  The Obama Administration in particular wants to come to an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, and so I believe that it would be willing to make concessions on the sanctions regime (which the Obama Administration did much to increase), especially with regard to Iranian access to the international banking system, petroleum sales, and trade generally.  We have already seen that Washington has acquiesced to Oman buying an enormous quantity of Iranian gas.

Shargh:  The victory of Hassan Rouhani showed that Iranian society is seeking peaceful solutions for the crisis. The election mechanism in Iran has convinced many experts in U.S and all over the world that these two countries have much more similarities in common, at least when we compare U.S. and its Arab allies in the region. Can we rely on this institutional similarity as well as the practice of election, elite alternation, some extent of rationality and Descartes mentality for saying that these similarities probably affect American decision-making process on Iran in positive term?

Katz:  Thoughtful American observers of the Middle East have long noted the irony in America’s adversary Iran being more democratic than America’s authoritarian Arab allies.  We saw a similar irony during the Cold War when America sided with authoritarian Pakistan against democratic India.  While there are politically powerful forces both in America and Iran that oppose improving relations with the other, I believe that President Rouhani’s popularity inside Iran provides the opportunity for those who support rapprochement in both countries to pursue it.

Shargh:  « Heroic Flexibility » is a rotation in Iranian foreign policy which was declared by supreme leader just before Rouhani’s trip to New York. It is believed that Iran has taken “go first” strategy. I’d like to know and ask you, HOW this new orientation is viewed in U.S. and among different political spectrum?

Katz:  The fact that the Supreme Leader himself has called for “heroic flexibility” is extraordinarily important, and is a strong sign that President Rouhani has his approval to seek improved Iranian-American relations.  Some in the U.S. recognize this, while others do not.  The present moment reminds me very much of the state of Chinese-American relations in the early 1970’s or Soviet-American relations in the mid-1980’s.  Just like now, there were those who then claimed that our adversaries’ call for improved relations was “a trick” meant to lull America into complacency while they prepared a surprise attack of some sort.  Fortunately, though, cooler heads prevailed in Washington and improved relations came about.  Both China and America have benefited from this ever since.   The Soviet Union, of course, fell apart, but this was not America’s doing.  Indeed, in his July 1991 speech in Kiev, President George HW Bush called for the Soviet Union to hold together and democratize.  The internal mess that the Soviet Union had become under communism, however, meant that it couldn’t be reformed.  While Russian-American relations have not always been good since then, they are much better than Soviet-American relations before Gorbachev.  I believe that improved Iranian-American relations would lead to long-term benefits for the U.S. and Iran as well.  Unlike the USSR but like China, Iran is not going to break up.

Shargh:  I come back to the region. The probable rapprochement between Tehran and Washington has made real concerns for Israel. Add to Israel, Arab countries across the region and Russia and certainly Saudi Arabia. What does it look like the new political configuration of Middle East after Irano-American reconciliation? Do U.S. allies will lose their geopolitical weight? Russia from her today’s stance will take which position?

Katz:  Israel and many Arab governments are fearful of improved Iranian-American relations.  They fear that America and Iran will become such good friends that America will not listen to them as much.  I believe, though, that improved Iranian-American relations would benefit both Israel and the Arab states.  The better Iran’s ties with the West, the more that Iran will have an interest in the peaceful resolution of its ties to the Arab world as well as the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.  Moscow does not welcome improved Iranian-American relations for fear of Iran becoming friendlier with the West at Russia’s expense.  I think, though, that Russia too would benefit from the reduced hostility in the region that improved Iranian-American ties could lead to.

Shargh:  If we put the regional dissatisfaction created from probable reconciliation alongside the « Shiite Crescent», the Sunnis in the region are not happy. US have what type of strategy for coping with these challenges?

Katz:  Much of the Sunni Arab fear of Shi’a Arabs is based on the belief that the latter are Iranian agents.  I think that an improved Iranian-American relationship could help defuse this fear through Tehran and Washington working together to resolve Sunni-Shi’a conflicts through both democratic and federal solutions in those countries most afflicted with Sunni-Shi’a tension, including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Shargh:  In US to what extent Israeli lobby and the hawks can make obstacle against “thaw” between Tehran and Washington? How much these obstacle could be serious?

Katz:  It is true that in America there are strong pro-Israeli as well as other hawkish groups that oppose a thaw between Tehran and Washington.  On the other hand, there are many supporters of Israel who see that improving Iranian-American relations would also benefit Israel.  The more progress that is made in improving Iranian-American relations, the more difficult it will be to block this process.

Shargh:  On nuclear crisis, US visibly was seeking to reinforce the sanctions regime for forcing Iran to change her behavior But the nonstop emphasis on the efficiency of the sanctions has become American strategy; It is not any more tactics. There is something illusion for understanding American foreign policy. According to you to what extent emphasizing on sanctions will jeopardize the opportunity of rapprochement? Lifting sanctions means “leaving with losing”?

Katz:  In my view, increasing sanctions on Iran now that both the Supreme Leader and President Rouhani have signaled a serious desire to improve relations would be counter-productive.  There are many in Washington, though, who will argue that it is the increased sanctions on Iran that has brought about Tehran’s “heroic flexibility,” and so sanctions should be further increased to bring about even greater Iranian flexibility.   In my view, though, this would be a miscalculation.   If those on the Iranian side who have taken the risk of calling for improved relations are treated poorly by the U.S., then those who oppose improving relations will become stronger in Tehran and the opportunity will be lost for years and years.

Shargh:  Iranian president in a conference insisted that Americans also have changed their accent. Visibly all things go well, according to you what’s the most important and unsolvable problem for passing this difficult period? Long history of hostilities or nuclear issue?

Katz:  There is indeed a long history of hostile relations between the U.S. and Iran in addition to their differences over the nuclear issue.  I think that making progress on the nuclear issue will actually be easier since this can be done by a relatively small number of people on both sides.  Overcoming the legacy of hostile relations, though, will require support from the political class as well as the public on both sides.  In my view, progress on the nuclear issue could help accomplish this more difficult task.

Shargh:  If the process of “thaw” begins normally in the framework of diplomatic attempts who is the biggest loser and winner of these new arrangements in Middle East?

Katz:  There are many who fear that they will lose by it—including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Russia.  In my view, though, all of these and more would benefit in the long-run from improved Iranian-American relations—even if they do not recognize this at present.

Shargh:  For the last question, Obama in his discourse in General Assembly defending “American Exceptionalism”, what does it mean for future of Middle East, we have to be afraid of emerging a new war?

Katz:  When he refers to “American exceptionalism,” President Obama is not claiming that America is better than others, but is referring to America’s role in helping free other nations from conquest by others (such as Imperial Germany in World War I, Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II, and  communist expansionism during the Cold War).   American generosity after World War II also helped many nations—including our former enemies—revive economically and politically.  President Obama also knows that America has committed many mistakes, such as supporting authoritarian regimes (including the Shah’s) during the Cold War because we were so very afraid of communism then.  What is exceptional about America, in my view, is that it is a country that both can learn from its mistakes and has the ability to rectify them.  But as President Obama would surely agree, other countries can also be exceptional in this way too.  If so, it is not war but peace that could emerge when exceptional leaders in exceptional nations work together.

The interview in Farsi is available here:  http://sharghdaily.ir/Modules/News/PrintVer.aspx?News_Id=22850&V_News_Id=&Src=Main

I am posting here my contribution to a collection of articles just published by the Foreign Policy Research Centre (New Delhi) entitled, “Studies on Iran.” 

Ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran came into being in 1979, there has been much that Tehran and Washington have disagreed on.  Arguably the most important—and the most intense—disagreement between them has been with regard to the Iranian nuclear program.  Tehran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, and that it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.  Washington fears that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, and points to Tehran’s lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection program—as well as the “international community” more broadly—as justification for its concerns.  The U.S.—especially under the Obama Administration—has sought to increase economic sanctions against Iran not just to induce Tehran to verifiably reassure the international community that it will not acquire nuclear weapons, but also to raise the costs of Iran’s not doing so to the point that Tehran is eventually forced to capitulate on the nuclear issue.  Tehran has responded sometimes through openly defying American pressure and sometimes through indicating a willingness to cooperate with the international community on this issue but then not doing so.  Both responses only fuel American concerns, and so the cycle continues.

The Iranian-American disagreement over the Iranian nuclear issue, of course, is not simply a bilateral issue between Washington and Tehran.  Many other governments are also affected by and concerned about the Iranian nuclear issue, the American-led sanctions campaign against Iran, and their own relations with Iran more generally.  As a result, the international relations of the Iranian nuclear issue are complicated.

With the possible exceptions of Syria and North Korea, there are no other governments that want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.  But while some of them state this strongly (such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and the UK), others do so more quietly (Russia and China), while others still do not say much of anything even though they would very much prefer Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons (Pakistan in particular comes to mind).  Still, on the question of whether Iran should or should not acquire nuclear weapons, the overwhelming majority of governments agree (publicly or privately) with the U.S. that it should not.

As noted earlier, the Obama Administration in particular has sought to intensify international economic sanctions on Iran in order to force it to submit to international supervision over its nuclear activity.  Yet while most other governments do not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, not all of them are as enthusiastic about this approach as Washington is. The U.S. began imposing economic sanctions in 1979 and has been steadily tightening them ever since.  For the U.S. to impose additional economic sanctions on Iran, then, has little or no negative impact on the American economy since Iranian-American economic ties are already extremely limited.

Many other countries, though, have substantial trade ties with Iran.  Some governments—such as the U.K., France, and Germany—have been or may be willing to sacrifice them in the attempt to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  But while many other governments do not want Iran to obtain them either, they are not so happy about being asked to sacrifice their own trade interests for this cause.  Some have gone along with the increased sanctions that the U.S. and some European governments have called for more because they do not want their relations with the West to suffer—especially when the U.S. and EU threaten to impose penalties on those who do not comply with the sanctions regime.  By contrast, some of Iran’s neighbors—most notably the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Authority, and Turkey—have sought to profit from serving as conduits for Iranian trade even while claiming to adhere to the sanctions regime against it.  Others still—especially China and Russia—support some increased UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran as a means of currying favor with America and the West on the one hand, while on the other increasing their trade with Iran (a strategy which China has been far more successful at than Russia).

For many governments, the problem with complying with the increased sanctions against Iran that Washington in particular calls for is that doing so involves real economic sacrifices for their countries but will not necessarily succeed in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  For those governments most concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, their anticipation that even a severe economic sanctions regime against Iran will not prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons has led them to contemplate the use of military means.  Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel in particular sees the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as so threatening as to require the use of force to prevent it.  Various Saudi officials have indicated that they would not oppose—indeed, would actually facilitate—the use of force to halt the Iranian nuclear program.  President Obama has indicated that he has not ruled out anything (i.e., military means) to achieve this aim.

It is doubtful, though, that there are any other governments that would support the use of force to halt the Iranian nuclear program.  Their opposition, though, is likely to be highly differentiated.  Some oppose the use of force in general.  Others oppose its use without authorization from the UN Security Council (which would definitely not be forthcoming in this case).  Others—such as Russia—oppose any American or Western use of force which they see as aimed at expanding the Western sphere of influence at Moscow’s expense.  Still others fear being negatively affected by any ensuing Iranian-American conflict that might result.  There are some, though, that might publicly condemn the use of force against Iran while privately welcoming it—either because it damages the Iranian nuclear program, provides them with a pretext for ending their cooperation with the American-sponsored economic sanctions regime, or both.  There are even some (possibly China and Pakistan) which might welcome the prospect of a prolonged Iranian-American conflict as an opportunity for them to pursue aggressive aims of their own with less fear of being opposed by the U.S.

In their face-off over the Iranian nuclear issue, an important problem that both Washington and Tehran face is that each tends to overestimate the isolation of the other from the rest of the international community.  Washington should not mistake most governments’ opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as implying that they would support (even privately) military action to prevent this or will agree to indefinitely ratchet up sanctions at America’s behest which increasingly harm their own economic interests.  Similarly, Tehran should not mistake much of the world’s opposition to American military action that is not authorized by the UN Security Council as implying a willingness to do anything meaningful to defend Iran should it be attacked by the U.S. and/or Israel.  Tehran should also keep in mind that if it does actually acquire nuclear weapons, it is not just the U.S. and Israel that will react negatively.  Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is likely to be followed quickly by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt seeking to do so, and by these countries and several others turning more toward the U.S. to deter and contain Iran—even as many of them continue to actively trade with it.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons, then, will not necessarily increase Iranian security as Tehran might hope and expect.  On the other hand, American policy toward the Iranian nuclear issue is more likely to receive broader support if Washington aligns itself with the interests and concerns of others instead of attempting to force them into supporting a policy formulated by the U.S. and a just a few of its close allies that is insensitive to their interests.


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