Flynt Leverett’s views on US policy toward Iran are making news.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett–both former NSC staff member in the Bush administration–co-authored a New York Times Op-Ed calling for a “Grand Bargain” with Iran. According to the Washington Post, the CIA–under pressure from the White House–“ordered two sections concerning U.S. dealings with Iran in his article to be heavily redacted.”
As the Post reports, “As a former CIA official, Leverett is required to submit his writings for pre-publication review.” The controversy concerns White House pressure on the CIA, especially since the agency had already approved publication of a longer version of the article, “Dealing with Tehran: Assessing U.S. Diplomatic Options toward Iran,” written for the Century Foundation.
Leverett’s subsequent attacks on the Neocons transformed this establishment Right Arabist into a darling of the anti-war Left. The latest White House move against Leverett only enhances his “street cred.”
What does Leverett’s Century Foundation propose for US-Iran relations? What got him into trouble with the White House? And who are his key opponents?
Leverett’s Grand Bargain
Leverett is as clear as any Right Arabist that, from his perspective, the Iranian regime is waiting for one basic concession from the US as the price for cooperation on the nuclear issue, Iraq, etc.: a security guarantee.
Tehran will require, among other things, a security guarantee from Washington—effectively a commitment that the United States will not use force to change the borders or form of government of the Islamic Republic of Iran—bolstered by the prospect of a lifting of U.S. unilateral sanctions and normalization of bilateral relations.
According to Leverett, the Iranians are holding out for this all-important US guarantee.
[I]t is interesting to note an important difference between the incentives package presented to Iran by the Europeans in August 2005 and the package presented to Tehran by the P-5 and Germany in June 2006…
[T]he August 2005 package contained a number of prospective commitments amounting to an effective security guarantee for the Islamic Republic; because these prospective commitments came only from Europe, they were strategically meaningless from an Iranian perspective.
By contrast, the June 2006 package, which was endorsed by the Bush administration, contained no prospective security guarantees.
I have no independent evaluation of Leverett’s interpretation of Iran’s priorities, but Leverett himself seems to suggest that the Iranians would be fools to exchange anything for such a guarantee. His own report quite confidently asserts that the US has no ability to “use force to change the borders or form of government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
[C]oercive approaches to containing the threat of Iranian nuclearization are not likely to work…
Numerous analyses have raised serious doubts that U.S. military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would delay significantly its nuclear development, because of profound uncertainty about the reliability and comprehensiveness of target selection, the possibility that “unknown” facilities are at least as close to producing weapons-grade fissile material as “known” facilities, and the prospect that Tehran could reconstitute its nuclear program relatively rapidly. At the same time, U.S. military action against Iran almost certainly would have profoundly negative consequences for a range of other U.S. interests.
There also is no reasonable basis for believing that the United States could bring about regime change in Iran, either by “decapitating” the Islamic Republic’s leadership in the course of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure or by supporting Iranian opposition groups under the cover of “democracy promotion.” More significantly, it is highly uncertain that regime change could be effected on a strategically meaningful timetable for dealing with the nuclear threat.
Is Leverett hoping that the Iranians are unable read his own report?
Notwithstanding his own doubts about the seriousness of US threats, Leverett is actually quite clear about the specific fears that seem to animate Iranian concerns for a security guarantee. And it is here that Leverett seems to have publicized some things that got him in hot water with the White House.
Since early 2006, Leverett has been speaking publicly about US efforts to establish back channel negotiations with the Iranians after 9/11. In a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “The Gulf Between Us,” Leverett said these diplomatic efforts were disrupted by Bush’s “axis of evil” speech.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Tehran offered to help Washington overthrow the Taliban and establish a new political order in Afghanistan. But in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush announced that Iran was part of an “axis of evil,” thereby scuttling any possibility of leveraging tactical cooperation over Afghanistan into a strategic opening.
In his Century Foundation report, however, Leverett concedes that the State of the Union speech was not, in fact, the deal breaker:
Iranian representatives missed the next monthly meeting with U.S. diplomats in protest [at the axis of evil speech], but—in a telling indication of Tehran’s seriousness about exploring a diplomatic opening to the United States—resumed participation in the discussions the following month.
The bilateral channel on Afghanistan continued for another year, until the eve of the Iraq war, but it became clear the Bush administration was not interested in a broader, strategic dialogue with Iran. Indeed, the administration terminated the channel in May 2003, on the basis of unproven and never pursued allegations of the involvement of Iran-based al Qaeda figures in the May 12, 2003, bomb attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
This claim is followed up by a crucial footnote:
The possibility of al Qaeda figures finding refuge in Iran was an issue that administration hardliners regularly used to undermine expanded tactical cooperation between Tehran and Washington. In the course of the U.S.-Iranian dialogue over Afghanistan, U.S. officials exhorted their Iranian counterparts to take steps to prevent al Qaeda and Taliban operatives from seeking sanctuary in Iran. In response, Iran deployed additional security forces to its border with Afghanistan and took several hundred fugitives into custody; the identities of these individuals were documented to the United Nations. In 2002, a number of these individuals, of Afghan origin, were repatriated to the new, post-Taliban Afghan government; others, of Saudi origin, were repatriated to Saudi Arabia. In the same year, a group of senior al Qaeda figures managed to find their way from Afghanistan into Iran, most likely via longstanding smuggling and human trafficking routes into Iran’s Baluchistan province.
In response to U.S. concerns, Tehran eventually took these individuals into custody and, in the spring of 2003, offered to exchange them for a small group of senior commanders among the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cadres in Iraq. Even though the MEK has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, the administration refused to consider any such exchange.
In other words, the deal breaker was neither Bush’s axis of evil speech nor Iranian links to al Qaeda. The deal breaker, according to Leverett’s account, was the US refusal to turn over MEK cadres in Iraq.
Leverett’s central allegation is that the US drew a line in the sand by refusing to remove the MEK “threat” to the security of the Iranian regime. White House fears, notwithstanding, this story has long been part of the public chatter. David Ignatius wrote a column about the whole affair, citing Flynt Leverett, back on July 9, 2004.
I have no independent evaluation of the so-called “threat” posed by the MEK, but I note with some interest that Leverett’s own account unintentional emphasizes the fact that both the Iranians and “hardliners” in the US seem to think the threat is a serious and valuable bargaining chip.
Who is Hitting Flynt Leverett?
Are Flynt Leverett’s White House antagonists folks who continue to hope that the MEK can provide useful leverage for dealing with the Iranian regime?
If so, it certainly matters who is trying to hit him.
According to Leverett’s Century Foundation report, Cheney provides the core of the opposition:
A… camp, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and his most important advisers, is strongly opposed to anything resembling a grand bargain and favors a more coercive approach to Iran policy.
This isn’t really surprising.
But more recently Leverett has named others when talking about White House attempts to silence him. The Los Angeles Times reports:
Speaking to reporters Monday, Leverett speculated that senior NSC officials, such as deputy national security advisors Elliott Abrams or Meghan L. O’Sullivan, had authorized their subordinates to intervene.
Mention of Elliott Abrams is no surprise. No love lost there. But Meghan L. O’Sullivan is no Right Zionist. She comes to the White House via Richard Haass and the Council on Foreign Relations. Herself a target of Right Zionists, she has solid Right Arabist credentials.