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Stumbling to Tehran: A Deeply Flawed Argument for a Very Good Idea

I vividly recall the excitement those of us in Chicago’s No War on Iran Coalition felt in October 2007 when Esquire published a profile – as the teaser text read – of two “former high-ranking policy experts from the Bush administration [who] say the U.S. has been gearing up for a war with Iran for years, despite claiming otherwise.” It was one of those moments that left-wingers revel in, when figures from inside the national security apparatus come out of the woodwork and echo what those of us agitating on the outside have been saying, but with a gravitas and on a stage that antiwar voices can only dream of having.

A review of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett. Metropolitan Books, 2013. 496 pp.

I vividly recall the excitement those of us in Chicago’s No War on Iran Coalition felt in October 2007 when Esquire published a profile – as the teaser text read – of two “former high-ranking policy experts from the Bush administration [who] say the U.S. has been gearing up for a war with Iran for years, despite claiming otherwise.” It was one of those moments that left-wingers revel in, when figures from inside the national security apparatus come out of the woodwork and echo what those of us agitating on the outside have been saying, but with a gravitas and on a stage that antiwar voices can only dream of having.

The Leveretts were consummate insiders; both had served in the State Department as well as on the National Security Council, and Flynt also had been a senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. Richard N. Haass, a pillar of the American foreign policy establishment (currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations), was the best man at their wedding. They had left the George W. Bush administration in 2003 “because of disagreements over Middle East policy and the conduct of the war on terror,” as Flynt reports on his website. Like many realists, they had locked horns with the administration’s increasingly belligerent neocon faction. On Iran, they had become outspoken critics of the warpath the administration seemed to be on; a course they warned was cataclysmic.

The Esquire article went viral in antiwar circles. The leftosphere ate it up. I printed out several copies of it to hand out at meetings of our group. The Leveretts provided intellectual catnip for those of us arguing and organizing against a US attack on Iran, which in that final year or so of the Bush era felt like a very real prospect.

Less than two years later, the Washington power couple made waves of a very different sort, and alienated many of their erstwhile admirers. In the summer of 2009, with millions of Iranians on the streets – initially to protest what they believed to be a stolen election, but subsequently to decry the violent repression with which the first wave of notably peaceful demonstrations were met – the Leveretts went to bat for the Islamic Republic. On June 15, the day that roughly a million Iranians held a silent rally in Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran, the Leveretts published an op-ed article in Politico with the title “Ahmadinejad won. Get over it.” This became their hobby horse for the next several years. Like battering rams, the Leveretts dismissed any and all suspicions about the authenticity of the 2009 election results as baseless. And they went much further, painting a fawning, romantic portrait of the Islamic Republic – especially of its most hardline, reactionary elements – and heaped scorn on Iran’s Green Movement, and seemingly anyone who expressed support for it. The label “pro-Green” became a term of abuse in their polemics, as if to disqualify the views of anyone sympathetic to the movement.

Going to Tehran could have been a major contribution to the very important debate regarding the future of American policy toward Iran. Indeed, with their pedigrees in the national security establishment, the Leveretts are ideally positioned to champion the case for normalizing relations between the United States and Iran — a case that desperately needs to be both made and heard in Washington. Lamentably, their ideological contortions get in the way and derail the effort.

To be sure, the book is not without its strengths. The penultimate chapter, “Iran and America’s Imperial Turn,” offers a trenchant and valuable critique of the follies and failures of US policy toward Iran going back three decades. The concluding chapter, “The Road to Tehran,” advances a bold proposal for realigning Washington’s relations with Tehran. The Leveretts revisit Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China, an overture that dramatically recast Sino-American relations. It is a story, they contend, that “offers valuable insights into how the United States might finally break out of its Iran policy straightjacket.” Indeed, they consider this “Nixonian moment” the “greatest achievement of American diplomacy in the past half century,” and call for a new Shanghai Communiqué that would set US-Iran relations on the path to rapprochement, which, they argue, would benefit American strategic interests in much the way Nixon’s China breakthrough did.

This argument is compelling and refreshing. It seems especially relevant with the election in June of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s president. There is widespread hope in Western circles (and indeed in Iran) that if ever there was a moment for a breakthrough in the tormented relationship between Washington and Tehran, this is it. Not since the period from 1997 to 2000, when Mohammad Khatami and Bill Clinton overlapped, have both countries had liberal/moderate/reformist presidents at the same time. With George W. Bush’s ascension to the White House in January 2001, there was a hardliner in Washington and a reformist in Tehran; until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. That evened the score with reactionaries in both capitals, until 2008, when Barack Obama’s election put a liberal in the White House, but a hardline counterpart remained in office in Tehran. With the election of Rowhani, who is more of a moderate/conservative pragmatist than a reformist, but one very much in debt to the reformist camp, there is a genuine chance for something akin to the Shanghai Communiqué.

Also valuable is their analysis of the thwarting of the Tehran Declaration in 2010. Turkey and Brazil worked out an arrangement with Iran – at Obama’s direction – aimed at resolving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Turkish and Brazilian officials got Iran to agree to a nuclear fuel swap deal. The deal, the Leveretts point out, “met all of the American president’s conditions” as outlined in letters Obama sent to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The negotiations, according to Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, “followed precisely the script that had been on the table for some months and whose validity had been recently reaffirmed at the highest level.” Yet Washington immediately rejected the deal that Turkey and Brazil had pursued at its urging and introduced a new United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution.

Erdoğan and Lula, write the Leveretts, “came to believe that, in reality, they had been set up to fail.” Their “main offense, from an American perspective, was that they had gone to Tehran and succeeded in brokering a deal.” Amorim and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned that squandering the opportunity that the Tehran Declaration presented “may well be regretted for generations to come.” Not only was this a failure to make progress on the Iranian nuclear standoff, it was a slap in the face to Turkey and Brazil, US allies, and emerging powers on the global stage. The Leveretts are correct in viewing this affair as a blown opportunity conducted in bad faith.

But the Leveretts get it badly wrong when they go out of their way and expend considerable effort not only to portray the Islamic Republic in the most flattering terms, but to disparage Iranian dissidents and trash the democratic Green Movement. They claim to be merely describing Iranian political realities in calm, sober terms, providing a corrective to the “wishful thinking” about Iran that they believe prevails in Washington. But it’s clear from Going to Tehran and their other writings that the Leveretts have taken sides in Iran’s internal political battle – with the regime’s most reactionary elements, and against the country’s human rights activists, dissident intellectuals and journalists, trade unionists, and women’s rights activists.

Part Two of the book, “The Islamic Republic as Legitimate State,” concludes with sections titled “Canonizing the Green Movement” and “Beyond the Green Movement.” The Leveretts treat sermons and statements by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with breathless reverence while taking Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi to task for being too defiant of Khamenei. They regard Khamenei’s judgments as “wholly appropriate,” but say that Moussavi “damaged his credibility,” that turnout for Green protests was “embarrassingly low,” and the movement is in “intellectual disarray” and lacking “a coherent agenda.” The widely documented repression unleashed on nonviolent demonstrators in 2009 and 2010 – brutal beatings, killings, mass arrests, torture and rape of women and men – was, in their eyes, “relatively restrained” and “should be considered in the context of Iran’s history.” They dismiss claims that there was a “bloody crackdown” as “caricatures.”

The Leveretts regard themselves as realists. Their explicitly Nixonian argument for a new American approach to Iran along the lines of the Shanghai Communiqué is pure realpolitik – they advocate rapprochement because they believe it is in America’s strategic interests. But their approach to Iran’s domestic politics – their partisan support for one faction over another – is decidedly un-realist. From a realist point of view, the internal politics of other countries are irrelevant – what matters is not the form of government or domestic arrangements of other countries but their strategic interests and how they go about advancing them in the international arena. Realists don’t grant importance to the internal political affairs of other countries, let alone take sides in them, as the Leveretts brazenly do with Iran.

Why do the Nixonian Leveretts make this very un-realist move? Because the demonization of the Islamic Republic and the “canonization” of the Green Movement, in their view, have “weakened support among Western elites and publics for diplomatic engagement with Tehran.” Their counter-narrative of a legitimate – indeed vibrant and democratic – Islamic Republic, and an incoherent and unpopular Green opposition, is thus designed to bolster the case for rapprochement.

This concern has some merit. The upheaval following the June 2009 election in Iran did have a chilling effect on the prospects for diplomatic progress. It was difficult to pursue diplomacy with the Islamic Republic amidst its biggest, bloodiest crackdown in twenty years. Even Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and one of the leading advocates of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, called for a “tactical pause” during the thick of the repression in the summer of 2009.

But there is no contradiction between advocating rapprochement between the two countries and denouncing the Islamic Republic’s human rights violations. Indeed the Green Movement itself has long supported normalization of relations between Washington and Tehran. In fact, an end to the longstanding hostilities between the two countries would benefit Iran’s democratic opposition. Washington’s saber-rattling has long been a lifeline to Iran’s hardliners, allowing them to justify their repressive measures as necessary to defend the Iranian people against the enemy at the gates. Without that external threat, Iran’s democratic movement would have more breathing space.

To the extent that Western opponents of diplomatic engagement with Iran invoke the Islamic Republic’s repression or human rights record, they are wrong – and out of step with the Green Movement, which, despite its own suffering at the hands of Iran’s repressive state apparatus, wants to see U.S.-Iran relations improved. These are separate issues -the United States should pursue a new Iran policy, and the Islamic Republic’s repression should be opposed (though I agree with the Leveretts that the United States is not the right messenger for this message – that’s the place of global civil society, not foreign governments). The Leveretts aren’t amiss in advocating rapprochement, or in worrying about its prospects being undercut by misplaced arguments about human rights. But they are dead wrong to whitewash the Islamic Republic and to disparage its domestic opponents. If anything, those of us who strongly support diplomatic engagement and resetting U.S. policy toward Iran will have to disassociate that position from the Leveretts, who have freighted it with their tortured logic.

The original version of this article appeared in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

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