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Why the United States Must Come to Terms With Iran

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Gareth Porter interviews veteran US officials about why US policy towards Iran needs to change.

Gareth Porter interviews veteran US officials about why US policy towards Iran needs to change.


GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Hi. I’m Gareth Porter for The Real News Network in Baltimore.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett are the authors of a new book, Going to Tehran, which challenges all the conventional wisdom about Iran and its nuclear program. They were both insiders in the U.S. national security state. They both worked as senior directors on Iran for the National Security Council staff, and then both worked for the State Department. But they quit the U.S. government in 2003 in disagreement over U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Flynt, Hillary, welcome to The Real News Network.



PORTER: First let me ask you both, as insiders or former insiders who went through a very rough transition to being outsiders, what was it like personally for both of you?

F. LEVERETT: You know, Hillary and I both left our positions at the White House on the National Security Council staff in March 2003 just before the Iraq War. I came out of government entirely just a couple of months later, in May ’03, and began almost immediately criticizing publicly various aspects of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. And at the time, that was taken basically as a critique of the George W. Bush administration, which in important ways it was. And while that got me in trouble in some quarters, it made me acceptable, even in some ways useful, to, let’s say, the center-left part of the foreign policy establishment. The first job when I came out was at the Brookings Institution.

But then when Hillary came out too and we began focusing more in our writing, our public statements on Iran, and what was wrong with U.S. policy toward Iran, that’s when the establishment more generally began to get uncomfortable with us. And then, when Barack Obama was first elected and inaugurated, and we began criticizing him very early on, and it became evident that our critique was not just a partisan critique of Republicans and neocons, but we were saying that Democratic administrations were as guilty as the Bush administration in their own ways of pursuing a kind of counterproductive and, ultimately, very destructive drive for dominance, for hegemony in the Middle East, and that’s when our relations, what was left of them, with the establishment, really began to fracture.

H. MANN LEVERETT: I mean, we of course lost friends when we parted ways with the Bush administration and with the establishment. But what we really lost under the Bush administration was the establishment platform in the media. So, for example, under the Bush administration we published an op-ed in The New York Times every three or four months. We published over a dozen op-eds in The New York Times from 2003 to early 2010. Today we can’t get in The New York Times. Same thing with The PBS NewsHour. Flynt would go on maybe four or five times a year. Today maybe it’s once a year. I used to be a regular on MSNBC during the Bush administration. Under the Obama administration, the same critiques are not really acceptable. And it’s as if we learned less about Iran in the past three years, which has been problematic and it’s something wrong with us and not something that is ever explored in terms of the establishment.

PORTER: So is the lesson of this experience that it’s okay if you’re seen as one of the two parties, but if you’re outside the two-party consensus, that’s a no-no and you lose access to [crosstalk]

H. MANN LEVERETT: That’s precisely—if you criticize the drivers of U.S. foreign policy, that they’re not partisan, they’re not embedded in one party or the other, but there’s something about the U.S. drive for dominance and hegemony in the Middle East and Asia in years past or maybe coming into today, that is problematic across the board.

F. LEVERETT: And by taking that on, you know, we’ve tried to do that. And by doing so, you know, at this point I don’t think I probably could and wouldn’t want to work at a mainstream think tank in Washington. I think those institutions have gotten far away from their original theoretical function anyway, so supposedly providing independent advice. But, you know, I now make my living as an academic teaching international affairs at Penn State and happy doing that.

PORTER: What were the key turning points? What were the incidents I should perhaps say that caused each of you to decide that you were going to have to get out of the system?


H. MANN LEVERETT: There were some pretty dramatic ones. I was the director for Persian Gulf affairs at the White House, the person on the staff dealing with Iran, and worked very closely with the Iranians right after 9/11. We had this exception to the rule where we could actually talk to Iranians over Afghanistan because it was in a multilateral context, it didn’t have to do with U.S.-Iran affairs, and we worked closely and constructively with them to overthrow the Taliban, send al-Qaeda on the run, in Germany to stand up the new political order which became known as the Karzai government.

But within weeks of that, here I am at the White House working hard on that, going to meet with the Iranians in Europe with colleagues from the State Department, within weeks of the success of overthrowing the Taliban, ousting al-Qaeda, standing up the new government, President Bush gives his State of the Union speech. I’m the staffer on the Persian Gulf. I’m not told that he is going to designate Iran as part of the axis of evil. This was a jarring moment.

I decided to stay because I wanted to keep the talks with the Iranians on board, at least through the transition in Afghanistan, the lead-up to the war in Iraq, But I didn’t want to stay at the White House. That was a bit too jarring. I left the White House, went to work for Colin Powell at the State Department. And while there, we get—the Iranians send in through the Swiss an offer for a comprehensive dialog for essentially a grand bargain. I take a look at that. I write the longest memo I think that Powell had received. He normally didn’t want to receive a memo in more than two and a half pages. This was five pages. But it made the case for why we should test this offer, take the Iranians up on their offer for a grand bargain. Everything would be on the table—the nuclear program, Hamas, Hezbollah, everything. It went into this big black hole.

But I saw Colin Powell a couple of weeks later at a going-away party for someone. He comes up to me and he says, you know, that was a great memo, but I just couldn’t sell it at the White House. I later learned from a colleague that Cheney was the one who vetoed it.

PORTER: Not too much of a surprise there. But I can understand why that would be a turning point, for sure.

H. MANN LEVERETT: It was. And it was really difficult with the invasion of Iraq, the war on terror, the treatment of Iran, to stay and do much more inside.

PORTER: Now, your book Going to Tehran suggests that the end of the Cold War was much more of an important turning point in terms of U.S. policy toward the Middle East in general and Iran in particular than is generally realized. Can you explain why you understand that it was so important? What is it that we’ve been missing about that turning point?

F. LEVERETT: I think we read American policy toward the Middle East and toward Iran as the real primary driver for it that cuts across Democratic and Republican administrations is a desire for dominance, a desire for hegemony, not to have or come to terms with independent power centers in the Middle East. This has been an American ambition going back all the way to World War II.

But when World War II was over and the Cold War got started, the presence of another nuclear-armed superpower put some real constraints on how robustly the United States could pursue this agenda. This is one reason, for example, the United States never put large deployments of ground or tactical air forces on the ground in the Middle East on an open-ended basis during the Cold War. Well, as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union disappeared, that constraint also disappeared, and it freed the U.S. to pursue dominance in the Middle East in a much more robust and direct way.

H. MANN LEVERETT: And it coincides with or even feeds into the response toward Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which for the first time we put half a million troops into the Middle East, something we would never have done during the Cold War and something which inaugurates this era of trying to get states, especially Arab states, to sign up to, to agree to, the governments in these states, highly militarized U.S.-led political and security order for the Middle East, which we then put it in terms of these feel-good words of a peace process—we inaugurate a peace process for the Middle East.

The peace process for the Middle East is just rhetoric. What it was about was to lock in Arab states in their weakened position—some of them, like Saudi Arabia, in fact occupied with tens of thousands of U.S. troops—to bring them into this highly militarized U.S.-led political and security order to cordon off the one remaining challenger to U.S. dominance, which was, after the Iraq War, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which, just as a final note, is the reason why we reactivate the Fifth Fleet to patrol the Middle East not with the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, not in 1990, not in 1991, in 1995, after we’ve defeated Iraq, when the only challenger is Iran. That’s when we need the Fifth Fleet, and we reactivate it and base it in Bahrain.

PORTER: So tell me, how close did the United States actually come in the immediate post Cold War period to coming to terms with Iran, to actually engaging seriously with Iran?

F. LEVERETT: We had a real chance. Bush 41, at the beginning of his administration, sent messages to Iran that if they would help get the last American hostages out of Lebanon, he would reciprocate towards them. They delivered; but coming out of the Gulf War and the end of the Cold War, Bush 41 reneged.

H. MANN LEVERETT: The key thing here is that unlike the conventional wisdom in the United States, particularly inside the Beltway, the Islamic Republic of Iran is fiercely independent in its foreign policy, but it is not implacably anti-American. And so it has periodically worked with the United States—as Flynt said, in Lebanon, but also in Bosnia and Afghanistan. It has negotiated with the United States and other parties on the nuclear issue. They are willing to come to the table. They are willing to work with us. But the key is they will not subordinate their foreign policy to U.S. dictates, to a U.S.-led political and security order. They are determined to make the security order in the Middle East more balanced, where they can pursue an independent foreign policy.

PORTER: Thank you, Flynt and Hillary.

F. LEVERETT: Thank you.

PORTER: Join us, please, for part two of this interview with Hillary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett on The Real News Network.

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