Event Video: Rep. Adam Smith Discusses Middle East Strategy

On December 5th, 2013 – NDN’s Middle East and North Africa Initiative hosted a discussion with Rep. Adam Smith, Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee. Topics covered include economic and diplomatic engagement, Iran, Egypt, Syria, military aid, and a broader regional strategy. Full video of the event is available below.

MENA Chat Webcast: A Post-UN Middle East Strategy

We hosted an online webcast to discuss President Obama’s post-UNGA Middle East strategy in light of developments with Iran and recent events in Syria and Egypt. You can listen to the conversation on Spreecast. I was joined by James Miller, Managing Editor of The Interpreter Magazine. James has many years of experience covering the Middle East, Russia, and the Arab revolutions.

MENA Chat - A Post UN Regional Strategy - Spreecast

Policy Brief – Intervention in Syria Needs to be Tied to a Larger Strategy

Image: Handout of U.S. President Obama meeting with national security staff to discuss Syria in White HouseToday we have released a new Policy Brief analyzing some of the problems with the Administration’s current approach to winning support for Syria authorization and laying out a framework for a more convincing and strategy-led argument. We believe that:

The U.S. has already rightfully chosen sides in this conflict, sending aid, training, weapons, and logistical support to the rebels. Decoupling this latest action from these ongoing efforts to support the opposition and from the stated policy aim of regime change simply makes no sense. If the administration is going to convince the Congress, the country, and the world that military intervention is now the proper response, they must address this fundamental dissonance by articulating a cogent vision of American involvement in the region that ties the ongoing – and proposed – actions in Syria to American values and concrete U.S. interests. Only then will the President be able to make a compelling case for not only his Syria policy, but also a broader agenda of engagement. There should be at least three components to this argument:

  • Preventing  nuclear weaponization of Iran and constraining its foreign policy adventurism is a legitimate aim of U.S. policy.
  • We need to encourage more constructive engagement from our Gulf partners.
  • We need to help empower more modern and pluralistic forces vis-a-vis violent and radical groups who seek to destroy the emergence of open, tolerant, and prosperous societies.

Download the full Syria Policy Brief.

Update: This report is also available En Español

Press Statement on the Implications of the Iranian Presidential Election

The election of Hassan Rouhani as the next president of Iran is a positive development and represents an opportunity for reform as well as renewed and rational engagement with the west. While it would be naïve to expect any sudden policy shifts from a regime still headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani ran on a platform of reform that emphasized not only domestic economic issues, but also his goal of working toward normalizing relations with the international community and creating an environment in which sanctions can be gradually rolled back.

U.S. relations with Iran should continue to be driven by our regional interests and by ensuring the security of our allies. It should be understood, however, that the current policy of sanctions and isolation are not policy goals in and of themselves. American interests will be best served by a more democratic, open, and responsible Iran that respects international norms and laws. If President-Elect Rouhani wishes to normalize Iran’s relationship with the United States and our allies, they will need to bring their nuclear program under transparent monitoring and cease supporting regional terrorism and instability through the forces they control both directly and by proxy.

It is worth noting that Mr. Rouhani was instrumental in negotiating the 2003 Sa’dabad Agreement, in which Iran agreed to suspend nuclear enrichment. Though this deal eventually collapsed, the fact that he has demonstrated a willingness to constrain the Iranian nuclear program should be viewed as a possible opening for new talks. While it will take time for the President-Elect to bring new and hopefully reform-minded personnel into the bureaucracy, the Iranian people have clearly rejected the status quo and spoken out for change. The United States should seize this opportunity to develop a diplomatic relationship with the new President and deploy a strategy designed to encourage Iran to become a more open and responsible member of the global community.

MENA Chat – Iran Negotiations with Laura Rozen

LauraRozenSketchIn this latest installment of MENA Chat, Bradley Bosserman interviews Laura Rozen about the most recent round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the international coalition known as the P5+1.

Rozen is the foreign policy reporter for Al-Monitor and editor of their Back Channel column. She has previously covered foreign policy and global affairs for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. She lives on Twitter as @LRozen.


Laura — who covered the talks in-person from Almaty, Kazakhstan — details the current state of negotiations, the response in the European and Iranian press, as well as the contours and likelihood of a possible deal.

Click play below to listen to our discussion.

Our other episodes of MENA Chat are also available to view:

Brad Bosserman Quoted in The Hill

Menendez ArticleThe Hill ran an article this morning examining the potential policy implications of Senator Kerry moving to the helm of the State Department and Senator Menendez, then, taking the Senate Foreign Relations gavel. I’m quoted discussing their divergent approaches to Iran.

Bradley Bosserman, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program for the liberal think tank NDN, said Obama and Kerry “know that productively engaging our European and Asian allies in a global campaign to isolate Tehran economically and diplomatically is the best policy.”

“There are others, though, who believe that an endless series of new, supposedly tougher sanctions is the best way to appear ‘strong on Iran,’ ” he said. “Sen. Menendez has demonstrated an enthusiasm for leading this group and has shown no apprehension about publicly clashing with the administration over the issue. The problem … is that their zeal to look tough discounts the realities of implementing complex sanction regimes that are coordinated with our allies — countries with diverse and distinct abilities to quickly comply with new sanctions.”

[Read the full article here]

Discussing Iran Sanctions On HuffPostLive

I was on HuffPostLive this morning with Abby Huntsman to discuss the latest round of European sanctions on Iran and the general efficacy of the sanctions regime. You can click the image below to watch the rather lively debate (I begin at around the 8:00 min mark). I want to take the opportunity, though, to frame my views on this subject a little more fully than I was able to on air.

The Obama administration has organized the most restrictive multilateral sanctions regime in Iranian history as part of a larger strategy which has proven to be about as successful as one could hope. While the human suffering in Iran is real and tragic, sanctions are hardly the sole culprit. The Iranian government has demonstrated incompetent management of their economic and healthcare systems for decades. Sanctions have contributed to this mismanagement to be sure, but the restrictions are a result of the Iranian government’s unwillingness to live up to their responsibilities to the international community. The terminal  goal of sanctions is not to spread misery, it is to advance a multifaceted strategy aimed at:

  • Isolating the government, banks, and companies in Iran from export, commercial, and diplomatic ties
  • Containing their ability to project destabilizing regional influence that would be at odds with US interests
  • Destabilizing the government and economy through denying access to foreign currency reserves, foreign direct investment, and oil refining capacity
  • Gaining leverage for the United States and its allies to bring Iran to the bargaining table and put them in a position where they are highly incentivized to accept limits on their nuclear program and to meet international compliance and monitoring obligations
  • Motivating the Iranian middle class, and perhaps more importantly, the influential Iranian business class to get off the bench and realize that continued support for the extant regime in Tehran will only lead to privation and isolation

Objective analysis reveals that by these standards, the current policy has been quite successful. There are those who contend that pure diplomacy is the answer, but that was the Obama Administration’s first move. It was, in fact, Tehran’s rejection of Obama’s attempted “diplomatic opening” that convinced many of America’s ambivalent allies that sanctions were the best option. For those who wisely believe a military attack on Iran to be a very bad course likely to lead to many unintended consequences, the current sanctions and containment regime continues to be the most appealing policy.

Update: Nima Shirazi – who blogs at http://www.wideasleepinamerica.com/ - pointed out that during this segment I refer to an “Iranian nuclear weapons program.” I should make clear that it is my view,  one shared by US and Israeli intelligence assessments, that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program and has not made a decision to actively pursue the creation of a nuclear weapon. Their continued enrichment would, though,  make it easier and faster for them to develop a weapons program if they decide to and is a prerequisite for doing so. In fact, the difference between developing a nuclear weapon and merely having a “nuclear weapons capability” is the crucial distinction between the US and Israeli declared red lines. In the end, the only way for the international community to understand with confidence the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program is for Tehran to agree to full-access and transparent international monitoring.

FACT CHECK: Romney’s VMI Speech Supports Obama’s MENA Strategy

Governor Romney today gave what he billed as a major address on his Middle East strategy. I wrote last week about the five questions that he should have answered today. Essential details that have real consequences for how a Romney Administration would actually conduct itself in the region. Unfortunately, those questions remain unanswered. What he did do, strangely enough, was make the case for the strategy that the Obama Administration has been pursuing for the last two years. On almost every single issue that Romney raised, the policy he claims to favor is the one currently being implemented. Instead of a critique, this address should be understood as an endorsement of Obama’s current strategy, and as a call to embolden it.


Romney says that he will “impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have.” But President Obama has already organized the most restrictive multilateral sanctions regime in history; a policy that is delegitimizing the current government and has led to popular revolts in Tehran.


Romney says that he would “work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need.” The Obama Administration has been working with Gulf allies to get weapons and support channeled to the rebels for months now, but has also acknowledged how risky it is to supply incredibly powerful weapons to groups that have unknown agendas and little ability to keep them out of the hands of anti-American forces. It’s unclear how Romney’s policy would be any different.


Romney says that he will “champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world.” The President, though, is in the midst of negotiating a major trans-pacific trade agreement, and has finalized regional trade and investment framework agreements with the Gulf Cooperation Council and the countries in the MENA region. Ambassador Sapiro articulated this trade-led policy over a year ago, so it is difficult to imagine how Mr. Romney has missed it.


Romney says that he will provide aid, but make it conditional on democratic progress, leverage international partners, and organize it under one administrator. That’s an excellent summary of the Obama policy. Ambassador Bill Taylor – the Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions – was probably surprised to hear that Mr. Romney appeared not to know that he existed, though he was appointed to coordinate all aid to MENA transition countries over a year ago.

Additionally, the Deauville Partnership was created by the US and its G8 allies specifically to provide aid that incentivized moving down the path of good governance, and leveraging multilateral partnerships with the IMF, foreign allies, and other development banks.

If Mr. Romney really wants to deploy the lessons of George Marshall, whom he name-checked five times during his address, he should call on House Republicans to stop blocking the economic engagement agenda that Obama has been pushing for over the last year and a half. The MENA Incentive Fund, $450 million in debt forgiveness, and essential aid to the transition countries remains in jeopardy. If Romney believes in Marshall’s vision of reconstruction and democracy promotion, then he has some phone calls to make to Capitol Hill.

5 Foreign Policy Questions that Romney Should Answer on Monday

As Governor Romney prepares for a major foreign policy speech on Monday, there are a number of critical questions that he needs to address. Mr. Romney likely chose the venue – the Virginia Military Institute – because of its contribution to generations of American military might. It should not be forgotten, though, that VMI was also the Alma Mater of George C. Marshall – whose plan for global economic engagement, liberalization, and aid led to the post-war recovery of Europe and laid the foundation for generations of stability, prosperity, and democracy. Governor Romney should keep that legacy in mind as he describes his foreign policy strategy, and answers these important questions:

1. Does Mitt Romney believe that the Arab Spring was a mistake?

  • Romney has framed the legitimate election of President Morsi in Egypt as some kind of blunder. This opinion seems to be unaffected by President Morsi’s keen interest in developing a positive relationship with the United States and his affirmation of Egypt’s treaty obligations with Israel.
  • Would Governor Romney have preferred the Arab Spring to not have occured? Is he opposed to the largest regional democratic movement in a generation, wishing instead that the region’s 300 million people were kept contained under the thumb of autocrats? And how will those views inform a Romney Administration’s policy toward the current transition countries and places like Jordan –  that may be nearing a pro-democracy tipping point?

2. Will Mitt Romney call on Congressional Republicans to stop blocking key support for partners in the Middle East? 

  • Republican Congresswoman Kay Granger recently blocked $450 million in aid to Egypt. Republican Senator Rand Paul attempted to pull all foreign assistance from Pakistan, Egypt, and Libya. House Republicans voted to eliminate the $770 million MENA Incentive Fund, the President’s signature economic tool designed to support moderates in the region and make strategic fiscal investments.
  • Earlier this week, he wrote that “we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East.” Does he support these specific transition programs, or will he propose others instead?

3. Does Mitt Romney support bombing or invading Iran?

  • He has often criticized the President’s Iran policy as being too weak, without offering any details on how a Romney administration would approach the situation. The Obama strategy has been to leverage international credibility to isolate Iran under the weight of the strongest multilateral sanctions regime in history, in a multi-year and sustained campaign to force Iran’s hand at the negotiating table. This strategy has resulted in a currency and economic crisis that seems likely to give the United States significant leverage in future negotiations. All of this while also deploying covert and cyber capabilities to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. What, short of an invasion or military attack – would be the stronger policy that Romney envisions? Does he support military action?

4. Does Mitt Romney’s vision of national security also include robust funding for non-defense diplomacy and development – Especially support for the transition countries in the Middle East and North Africa? 

  • He’s been very specific about the level of defense spending he thinks is required to secure the United States, pushing the Pentagon’s budget up to 4% of GDP, but has been largely silent on the Foreign Operations budget.
  • His running mate authored a budget that slashes 11% — or $6 billion dollars from the foreign affairs account. With Mr. Romney insisting that he would not tolerate a dollar more of revenue,  does he view the development, aid, and diplomacy budget as excessive, a mere luxury that should be sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction or increased defense spending?

5. Will Mitt Romney outsource our Middle East policy to Israel? 

  • Romney has recently said that he would place “no daylight between the United States and Israel.” The United States has myriad interests in the Middle East – commercial, strategic, defense, and energy-related. While Israel is a powerful US regional ally, not all of these interests center primarily on Israel. That should be an uncontroversial statement.
  • Does Mr. Romney, however, believe that US regional interests will always be best served by deferring to the preferences of the Israeli government? And if not, on which issues – and in which circumstances – would he support putting “daylight” between himself and Mr. Netanyahu.