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Ruthless Iran: Can a Deal Be Made?

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Abbas/Magnum Photos
Portraits of Iran’s supreme leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, Tehran, May 2001

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett are unusual among former staffers of the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council in their deep affection for the Islamic Republic of Iran. This attraction, which knows few bounds, finds its apotheosis in Going to Tehran. Their stated goal is “the most objective analysis of Iranian politics.” Yet they find that Iran embraces, “more fully and openly than Turkey, the project of building a state that is simultaneously Islamic and democratic.” (The greater openness of Tehran than Istanbul should, they seem to think, be apparent to any objective analyst.) Iran’s government “of the Shi’a, by the Shi’a, and for the Shi’a,” they suggest, may well produce “a wider range of choice for Iranian voters than the United States’ two-party system offers American voters.”

To say the Leveretts are contrarians would be a gross understatement. The brutal crackdown on millions of protesters who took to the streets after the 2009 presidential election was, they argue, “relatively restrained”—despite the beatings, killings, mass arrests, and institutionalized sodomy that characterized it. I witnessed a good deal of this brutality. (The Leveretts do allow that the government’s response included “criminal acts.”) As for the uprising, it was in their view no more than the self-indulgent acts of pampered younger people from affluent north Tehran homes, a pretext for more “analysis by wishful thinking”—a favorite phrase—of deluded Westerners who inflated the Green Movement’s significance. The authors, who were not in Iran at the time of the post-election upheaval, seem perturbed that the world press covered these momentous events at all: “Notwithstanding their relatively narrow social base, the initial demonstrations received worldwide media coverage.”

This dogged pair of investigators prefers to point out that the Islamic Republic has the “largest stock of industrial robots in West Asia.” Even the much-mocked Iranian auto industry—known to locals for its cars’ failing brakes, galloping pollution, and boxy (and discontinued) Paykan line—earns the authors’ admiration.

The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust and September 11 are not examples of provocative stupidity. Rather they demonstrate adroit challenges to “the foundational premises” and “reigning narratives” of Washington and Israel, at least as seen by “people in the region.”

The Leveretts’ schematic history of the 1979 revolution dismisses its liberal current. It alludes to the execution of “a number” of opponents of the “velayat-e-faqih state”—a state placed by Ayatollah Khomeini under the guardianship of the Islamic jurist, a supreme leader standing in for the Prophet. This vague “number” ran to as many as 20,000 political prisoners slain in the 1980s alone. The killing by Iran-backed Hezbollah operatives of 362 people—mainly US servicemen—in two Beirut bombings is described as a Western failure to empathize with Iran. The authors sound indignant:

American commentators who attribute the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut—where the CIA maintained a large station—in April 1983 and the US Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport in October 1983 to Iranian instigation never bother to explain why Tehran should have looked tolerantly on the insertion of a significant number of American troops and intelligence officers into a highly contested Middle Eastern arena….

It often seems in these pages that Flynt and Hillary Leverett have drunk the Islamic Republic’s Kool-Aid to the last drop.

This is a pity because as across-the-board apologists for an inefficient and often ruthless regime they undercut a case that needs to be made—that US policy toward Iran, including during the first term of President Obama, has been a failure characterized by persistent demonization of the mullahs; lost opportunities; a reflexive urge to punish the Islamic Republic; an inability to understand an Iranian psychology shaped by US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran–Iraq War and Western intrusion going back to the CIA-instigated coup of 1953; and repeated insistence that “all options are on the table,” including possible war, to pulverize the country’s opaque nuclear program. Vali Nasr, an astute observer of Iran who spent two years working for the Obama administration, observes in his new book The Dispensable Nation that the president’s promised Iran engagement proved to be no more than “a cover for a coercive campaign of sabotage, economic pressure and cyber-warfare.”1 Certainly, after Obama’s brief attempts at diplomacy, this has been the case since 2010.

The Leveretts note how, over the years, “Washington pocketed whatever cooperation Tehran extended”—including opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan following September 11—only to consign Iran to the axis of evil. They are close to the mark when they write:

In American popular culture and opinion, Iran remains the embodiment of an extremist Islam that is no more rational than, and functionally indistinguishable from, the Salafi extremism of Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.

Their portrayal of the Islamic Republic as a prudent power in its foreign policy decisions is a needed antidote to what they call “the irrationality myth”—the wild comparisons (including from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) of Iran to Nazi Germany and all the unpersuasive characterizations of the country’s leaders as apocalyptical madmen. Iran, compared to its neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan, has been a relatively stable country, not a condition normally associated with suicidal lunatics. The Islamic Republic has survived because its leaders are shrewd and tough. The Leveretts quote Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader: “Regarding our vital issues, we are not sentimental. We do not make decisions based on emotion. We make decisions through calculation.”

The overarching problem is that the Leveretts’ urge to defend the Islamic Republic’s every act destroys their credibility. It makes them implausible critics of US policy at a time when new thinking on Iran is urgently needed and a third US war in the Middle East looms. Going to Tehran could have been a useful book but it is buried in heavy doses of one-sided drivel.

The twisted portrayal of the Arab Spring is a case in point. The Leveretts contend that at this time of transformation Iran has a “soft-power edge” based on the regime’s popular anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. Iran, they claim, is using this advantage “to encourage neighboring states to better represent their populations.” This is a fantastical statement. The Islamic Republic is working hard to defend the embattled tyranny of its Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad, in a war whose brutality on all sides has already taken more than 70,000 lives; the conflict has produced over one million refugees.

The Leveretts have nothing to say about this bloodshed. They do say the Assad government is one of the “vital participants in forging a more representative and stable political order in Syria.” In general, as this view suggests, they have misread what popular protest and hope for democracy in the Arab world can mean.

Their argument is that democratization will strengthen people “receptive to Iran’s message of resistance.” It will give Iran new allies like Egypt. Yet they defend the murderous Assad. The groundbreaking visit last year of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to Tehran is noted as a sign of Iranian-Egyptian détente. Yet in a typically gross omission, they do not mention Morsi’s challenge to his hosts when he said, “Our solidarity with the children of beloved Syria against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is a moral duty as much as a political and strategic necessity.”

Nor do the Leveretts mention the farce that was Iran’s attempt in early 2012 to use a Tehran conference to rebrand the Arab Spring as an “Islamic Awakening” inspired by the Iranian revolution. A delegate held up a one-word sign: “SYRIA?” As Robert Worth of The New York Times reported, a text message, circulated widely on cell phones around Tehran, went: “If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, don’t worry: it’s not the high prices, poverty, or unemployment. You are suffering from Islamic Awakening.” Iranians, unlike the authors, have a sense of humor and a keen eye for the absurdities of their polity.

From Cairo to Tunis—where a genuine struggle is ongoing to reconcile representative government with Islam as democratically elected Islamist parties confront the realities of political responsibility—nobody looks to Tehran or the velayat-e-faqih model for inspiration or direction. Iran’s revolution against “the bullying powers” is yesterday’s news. It was an experiment that overturned the Shah’s harsh rule but was responsible for many thousands of cases of execution and torture. It ossified into a form of theocratic repression that holds little appeal for the youth of the Arab world.

The Leveretts write:

For most Egyptians and other Middle Easterners, the “main division in the world” is not between democracies and dictatorships but between countries whose strategic autonomy is subordinated to the United States and countries who exercise genuine independence in policymaking.

On the contrary, everything I have seen and heard in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia over the past two years suggests it is precisely the quest for freedom from despotism that has driven brave people to revolution—the freedom at last to write and say what they like, act to change their lives, and join the modern world. This does not mean they want societies that are secular clones, or lackeys, of the West. But they are saying they do not want to live any longer in cowed societies riven by fear under the sway of an unaccountable authority. Khamenei’s Iran, and his position itself, is on the wrong side of this political tide.

Certainly an important precursor of the Arab Spring was the Iranian uprising that began on June 12, 2009. The Leveretts dismissed this Middle Eastern earthquake, so perhaps it is not surprising that they have misread its sequel. The revolt began when, within hours of polling stations closing, Ahmadinejad was pronounced the first-round winner of the presidential election with 62.63 percent of the vote, a result that—as Mir Hussein Moussavi’s Green Movement surged—gave the incumbent almost 20 million more votes than in the first round in 2005. How, Iranians asked, could this be?

I was there that day, and for the twelve days following, and will never forget the courage of millions of Iranians protesting what they saw as their stolen votes in the face of the regime’s thuggery throughout the city. Rather than being satisfied with such an unexpected “landslide,” Ahmadinejad and the regime set out from June 13 to smash Moussavi and his supporters, burning his headquarters that morning, beating countless women in the streets, closing down the Interior Ministry where votes were being counted, expelling the foreign correspondents they could lay their hands on, ranting about Western conspiracies, and creating an atmosphere of terror in Tehran and other major cities. The Leveretts give no adequate sense of these actions, and their failure to do so undermines their claim that this was a legitimate victory in a clean election, a view they advocated from day one.

“Ahmadinejad Won. Get Over It.” This was the headline of an Op-Ed by the Leveretts in Politico on June 15, 2009. At the time they had never gone to Tehran. But they knew. A constant feature of Going to Tehran (something the authors eventually did) is that the Leveretts know the truth while everyone else is clueless, a trait that leads Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University to an exasperated comment: “The Leveretts would do well to exercise a degree of humility.”

That day, June 15, I was among protesters later estimated at close to three million people, stretching over several miles in a sea of green from Enqelab (Revolution) Square to Azadi (Freedom) Square. There were students, shopkeepers, artisans, doctors, factory workers, and professionals—Iranians from many different backgrounds and ages marching with great dignity in protest at an outrage that made a mockery of their ballots. This diverse crowd would face gunfire, tear gas, beatings, and imprisonment over the following days and weeks. The Leveretts dismiss them as coming “largely from the city’s more prosperous north.”

The bloody crackdown by security forces and plainclothes Basij militiamen was, the Leveretts assure us, essentially a “Western caricature.” As for Neda Agha-Soltan, the young student whose death by sniper fire was caught on a video seen around the world, she “was not protesting when she was shot.” I spoke at the time to Hamid Panahi, the music teacher who was at her side: Neda, he told me, had gone out to protest—and it was as a protester that she was denied a proper funeral service in a mosque. The Leveretts even give credence to the view that she was in fact killed in some Israeli-backed operation designed to hasten the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

Nothing sways them from the conviction that Ahmadinejad won fair and square. Not the terror; not the frantic push to expel Western journalists; not the two million ballots printed on election eve (“Even if all two million ballots had somehow been fraudulently cast, they would still not have been enough to produce Ahmadinejad’s decisive win”); not the irregularities in almost fifty towns and villages involving some three million “excess” votes; not the bizarre results (including Moussavi’s loss in his home province of East Azerbaijan) or the unseemly haste in making announcements or the unmonitored counting after opposition observers were thrown out; not last year’s parliamentary elections in which state media predicted the 64 percent turnout before it happened; not even the overarching fact that participatory politics are an element in Khomeini’s velayat-e-faqih system but ultimately one that is subject, like all else, to the whims of the supreme leader’s divine intervention. (Full disclosure: I am accused of “fatuousness” in their book for writing from Tehran of the stolen election that “sometimes you have to smell the truth.”)

As the authors themselves note of the system, citing reformist thinkers including Akbar Ganji and Abdolkarim Soroush, “democratization would ultimately mean its demise.” Yes, that is what genuine Iranian democratization would entail. As it is, Tagieh—the sacrifice of truth to a higher religious imperative—prevails in political form. It did in the election of 2009.

The Leveretts believe they are good with numbers (yet they are off by a year on Richard Holbrooke’s death: it was in 2010, not 2011). They have boundless faith in “high-quality” opinion polls, including some taken in conditions of extreme intimidation after the 2009 election. These, they insist, demonstrate that Ahmadinejad won with two thirds of the vote. The same polls show that Iranians supported the crackdown. The Green Movement, they write, quickly shrank because people realized it was a challenge to their beloved Islamic Republic. They are wrong. The movement slowly ebbed because Iranians were arrested, beaten, and terrorized in order to prevent future opposition.

As I write, some photographs of a grieving Ahmadinejad in Caracas clasping hands with Hugo Chávez’s mother have been altered by the Iranian authorities to suggest the illicit presidential embrace—no physical contact between unrelated men and women is allowed in the Islamic Republic—was in fact with a man. Yet the Leveretts believe this is a regime incapable of rigging votes when necessary to avoid a runoff that would have raised the dreaded specter of a velvet revolution. The authors’ account of the 2009 election and uprising is simply wrong. This was not a mere passing disturbance shrugged off by a popular regime. It was a moment when, its internal contradictions exposed as never before, the Islamic Republic stood on the brink.

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Mohammad Hassanzadeh/Fars News Agency/AP Images
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his protégé Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei at a press conference in Tehran, March 2013

“It is critical,” the Leveretts write, “for Americans and other Westerners to recognize that the Islamic Republic is not going away.” This is sound advice. Through ruthlessness the regime weathered the 2009 storm. Iran is still combustible, its currency battered. Another eruption is always possible. But to bet on sanctions or covert action or threats of war tipping the country into upheaval is a mistake. The apparatus of the entrenched revolutionary elite—its web of moneyed interests and its intelligence and security forces—is strong.

The current Iranian regime’s various power centers distinguish it from classic dictatorships based on personality cults. Leaders as different as Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Moussavi challenge the system only to be co-opted or silenced. The battered economy is adaptable. Iranians are entrepreneurial. Oil and gas are abundant. Women resent the severe constrictions on them but, as the Leveretts point out, have used new educational opportunities to excel in academia and professional life. Repression intensifies then ebbs.

Iran will hold another presidential election in June. In all likelihood the regime will emerge intact from it, with much apathy on the part of voters. Ahmadinejad, at his term limit, will be gone, having generated a lot of noise and nuisance and mistreatment of dissidents but little else. Once strictly aligned with the ummah, or community of believers, and obsessed with a possible reappearance of the hidden imam or Mahdi, Ahmadinejad has reinvented himself as a man of the people opposed to the religious traditionalists and is pushing his handpicked presidential candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to outmaneuver them. The real test to the system will come in engineering a succession to Khamenei, the seventy-three-year-old supreme leader, but no one can say when that will happen.

Meanwhile the centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow spin. President Obama has made it clear he will go to war rather than allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, a development he now says is more than a year away. As the president put it in Jerusalem, while expressing a strong preference for diplomacy, “America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.” His policy is prevention, not containment. Israel continues to set its “red line” in a different place: nuclear “breakout” capacity, or Iran’s attainment of the means and wherewithal to produce a bomb in short order. Iran, enriching to 4 percent for a dysfunctional power plant, and to near 20 percent for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) used to make medical isotopes, insists it has no intention to produce bomb-grade material (a 90 percent enrichment level). “We consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful,” Khamenei said last year, meaning it violates Islamic precepts.

Western powers are skeptical because of past Iranian deception and they point to several indications that the Iranians are acquiring the technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons: hence the imposition of ever tougher sanctions. Western intelligence agencies have not, however, detected an Iranian decision to go for a bomb. Congress is in a bellicose mood. The president does not want war in Iran just as he extracts America from the long war in Afghanistan. The situation is full of danger. As John Limbert, a former US hostage in Iran, has observed, Iran sees America as “belligerent, sanctimonious, Godless and immoral, materialistic, calculating, bullying, exploitive, arrogant and meddling.” America, in turn, sees Iran as “devious, mendacious, fanatical, violent and incomprehensible.” One thing seems certain even as nuclear negotiations have begun again. The next eighteen months will bring another crescendo of tension over possible war.

At this critical juncture, the Leveretts make several important points about the nuclear program and the failed Western response to it. They grasp its political centrality within a revolutionary system whose ideological core is independence from the Western powers. They argue persuasively that Iran’s intent is to achieve a nuclear threshold similar to Japan’s as a form of strategic leverage and a demonstration of technological prowess, rather than to make a bomb with all the danger inherent in that step. They suggest that, given an Iranian psychology that bristles at domineering Western attitudes, “the notion that sanctions and other economic pressure will generate strategic leverage over Tehran’s decision making is counterhistorical.” They argue that Obama’s “efforts at engagement have been almost completely rhetorical.” And, opposing a war of dubious efficacy and immense strategic and human cost, they write: “Instead of thinking about starting another war in the Middle East, American decision makers need to acknowledge that the United States has to come to terms with the Islamic Republic.”

But how? Khamenei, who decides policy, has not decided that the anti-American position he has used to sustain a tired revolutionary order can be safely dismantled. If “Death to America” goes, what is left? The Leveretts argue for a new move by Obama comparable to Nixon’s going to China, which would transform the Middle East. Certainly the exclusive focus on the nuclear issue in Iran diplomacy has been unhelpful, but the kind of grand bargain they envisage—in which Iran would even help create peace between Israel and Palestine—seems utterly fanciful at this stage.

Where their book is more helpful is in pointing to one particular lost opportunity and illustrating what it says about Western myopia. In early 2010, Turkey and Brazil, both then nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council, stepped forward as possible mediators on the nuclear question, and on April 20, 2010, Obama sent nearly identical letters to his Turkish and Brazilian counterparts. The letter to the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was later leaked by a Brazilian website. Its key paragraph, regarding Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) and possible Western provision of 20 percent enriched fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, reads as follows:

There is a potentially important compromise that has already been offered. Last November, the IAEA conveyed to Iran our offer to allow Iran to ship its 1,200 kg of LEU to a third country—specifically Turkey—at the outset of the process to be held “in escrow” as a guarantee during the fuel production process that Iran would get back its uranium if we failed to deliver the fuel. Iran has never pursued the “escrow” compromise and has provided no credible explanation for its rejection. I believe that this raises real questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions, if Iran is unwilling to accept an offer to demonstrate that its LEU is for peaceful, civilian purposes. I would urge Brazil to impress upon Iran the opportunity presented by this offer to “escrow” its uranium in Turkey while the nuclear fuel is being produced.

Less than a month later, on May 17, 2010, Lula and Prime Minister Recep Erdo˘gan of Turkey delivered the proposal for the escrow deal. After negotiations in the Iranian capital, an agreement called the Tehran Declaration was reached. It contained four central points. First, the three countries recalled “the right of all State Parties, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” Second, Iran would transfer 1,200 kilograms of LEU to be held in escrow in Turkey within one month. Third, pending their approval of the Tehran Declaration, the IAEA, France, Russia, and the United States (the Vienna Group) would agree to provide 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor to Iran within one year. Fourth, if the terms were not met by the Vienna Group, Turkey would transfer the LEU back to Iran (which maintained legal possession of the material).

This proposal, to the fury of Brazil and Turkey, whose leaders felt used, was immediately rejected by the United States for various reasons, including that it did not freeze Iran’s enrichment at the 20 percent level. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tabled a US-drafted Security Council resolution the next day imposing further sanctions; it was adopted the next month. From that moment, as the Leveretts write, “Iran policy has grown ever more coercive.”

Looking back now—at a time when it is widely recognized that no deal that fails to recognize Iran’s right to low-level, strictly monitored enrichment is conceivable—the question must be asked: Was the Tehran Declaration, whatever its shortcomings, really so far from Obama’s proposal and so unworkable as a basis for trust-building that it had to be summarily dismissed? Once again, the limits of pressuring Iran are becoming clear. Nobody has said it better than the thirty-five former ambassadors and senior officials who recently signed an important report by the Iran Project:

After 30 years of sanctioning and trying to isolate Iran, it seems doubtful that pressure alone will change the decisions of Iran’s leaders. Meanwhile, there appear to be risks associated with reliance on this approach. A strengthened diplomatic track that includes the promise of sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable cooperation could help to end the standoff and produce a nuclear deal.2

The Leveretts might have made a strong case for such creative diplomacy. A pity, then, that they see dark conspiracy in every US failing—and no failings on the other side. They blame America’s “imperial turn” and even suggest that President Obama’s “attempt to salvage Washington’s failed drive for regional hegemony could wind up doing more damage to American strategic prospects than George W. Bush’s debacles did.” They blame “liberal imperialists” (John Mearsheimer’s phrase), who, in the Leveretts’s telling, seem to include everyone from Secretary of State John Kerry to Leslie Gelb and Tom Friedman. They blame the neocons, of course, and they blame the Israel lobby, embodied by institutions like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where, as a note acknowledges, Hillary Mann Leverett once worked (and, as is not mentioned, wrote a paper in 1998 denouncing “Iranian links to international terrorism”).

They also blame the Iranian diaspora. And, in customary egregious style, they write that all four of these groups “use human rights issues as a tool to support American dominance over the Islamic Republic.” In the land of the Kahrizak Detention Center, scene of the worst abuses in 2009, and Evin Prison, human rights are a grave issue involving brutal mistreatment, not a “tool.”

Iran has been widely portrayed in the United States as an incarnation of evil. The Leveretts might have offered a counterbalancing account. Instead they have fallen prey to their own dangerous mythology of a benign Iranian order loved by its citizens. Their book is a disservice to truth and a betrayal of all the brave Iranians who, for more than a century now, have been seeking a political order that provides a genuine reconciliation of freedom, representative government, and faith.

Letters

Going To Which Iran? July 11, 2013

  1. 1

    The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (Doubleday, 2013). 

  2. 2

    “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy,” April 17, 2013; available at theiranproject.org. 

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