Bad News for Hillary Mann Leverett

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Bad news for Hillary Mann Leverett, but potentially good news, I think, for the people of Iran. Jay Solomon reported this past weekend in The Wall Street Journal that the Obama Administration now thinks the regime is shaky:

The Obama administration is increasingly questioning the long-term stability of Tehran's government and moving to find ways to support Iran's opposition "Green Movement," said senior U.S. officials.

The White House is crafting new financial sanctions specifically designed to punish the Iranian entities and individuals most directly involved in the crackdown on Iran's dissident forces, said the U.S. officials, rather than just those involved in Iran's nuclear program.

Hillary Mann Leverett and her husband, Flynt Leverett, both former American national security officials, believe that the opposition movement is irrelevant, and so for this, and other semi-inexplicable reasons, they are proposing -- regularly, via The New York Times op-ed page -- that America pursue a policy of conciliation with the ruling junta, in the hope that they will be nice to us in return. Abbas Milani, writing in The New Republic, had this to say about that:

The Leveretts refer to "half-hearted efforts" by the Obama administration to establish ties with Iran. But the president of the United States has reportedly written two unsolicited and still unanswered letters to Khamenei; he has gone out of his way not to offer full support to the regime's opponents; he has asked Congress to delay the passage of a bill authorizing new sanctions on the regime. All of this only to be rebuffed openly by Khamenei and ridiculed by his cohorts. In the meantime, the regime has continued its work on the nuclear program, increased its involvement in Yemen by supporting the Shia insurgency that weakens the central government and creates a vacuum for Al Qaeda, and increased its support to Afghan rebels through its proxies. For years, regime apologists in America have suggested that U.S. efforts to negotiate with Iran are half-hearted, or that all the clerics in Iran want is some respect. Events of the last seven months show the problem is not in Washington, but in Tehran, and with the nature of the regime. Khamenei knows that anti-Americanism is his raison d'etre.

Hillary Mann Leverett, in her weak-tea response to my original post about her new politics, denies that she jumped from Team Sanctions to Team Appeasement because she lost her bearings, but because she came to realize that negotiations with Iran could work. She even came to believe that some sort of "grand bargain" was possible, something no Iranian leader, of course, believes:

... I participated for almost two years in regular (effectively monthly) meetings with Iranian counterparts to coordinate U.S. and Iranian policies regarding the overthrow of the Taliban, stabilizing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban's defeat, and dealing with Al-Qa'ida operatives trying to flee Afghanistan as a consequence of the U.S. invasion.

From this experience, I saw first-hand that the first approach--diplomatic isolation, sanctions, and economic pressure--did not and could not work to influence Iranian decision-making on issues that matter to the United States.  As a result, by the time of the 9/11 attacks, I was intellectually prepared to have at least an open mind regarding Iranian messages that those attacks had been so strategically consequential that Tehran and Washington could and should work together to stabilize Afghanistan and fight Al-Qa'ida.

Hillary Mann Leverett and her husband are among the more cynical foreign policy realists (by definition, of course, not an idealistic bunch) I've ever read, so I won't critique the morality of their desire to buttress an Iranian regime that rapes and murders its own citizens in order to maintain its hold on power. But I can say that, in realist terms, her response to my post is deeply unrealistic. First, the senior diplomats for whom she worked (including Ryan Crocker, the most esteemed American diplomat of his generation) don't seem to have the same rosy memories of these negotiations that she does, but in any case, the conditions that pertained at the time no longer exist. The people who conducted Iran's negotiating in the pre-Ahmadinejad period aren't the same ones who would do the negotiating today (Some of these officials have been purged from the system and face imprisonment.) Imagine a foreign leader stating that he believed he could successfully negotiate with George W. Bush because he once successfully negotiated with Jimmy Carter; this is what Hillary Mann Leverett, in essence, is saying.

And another so-called realist argument against the Leverett ideology: The Iran of the immediate post-9/11 era negotiated with the United States, to the extent that it negotiated at all, in part because it grew to be frightened of America's power and wrath. The Iran of early 2003 was scared witless by George W. Bush; the Iran of 2010, however, has seen the limits of U.S. power in the Middle East (they learned, through their own political and battlefield experiments, how easy it was to do damage to the American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan) and they are not quite so easily impressed. Fear is one factor that motivates negotiations, and fear is largely absent from the calculus today. 

Of course, even when fear was present, there is little in the actual historical record to suggest that the Iranian regime wanted better relations with the United States. Its actions against America's various allies in the Middle East suggest that the regime sees itself in a zero-sum struggle with the U.S. for domination of the Middle East. Hillary Mann Leverett, should she be put in charge of Iran policy tomorrow (a nonexistent possibility, given how she has brought discredit to herself across the ideological spectrum) could write twenty pleading letters to Iran's Supreme Leader on behalf of the President, and they would not help at all. In fact, they would lead us, once again, to eventual disaster, because the Leveretts have not learned the most useful lesson of all in their obviously-flawed study of the American-Iranian relationship: It is always better for America to side with the people of Iran, and not with its rulers.

One final note: Shrin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace prize winner who fears arrest if she returns to Iran, now believes, according to Jeffrey Gedmin, that the regime has no future:

Show trials, documentaries vilifying young Agha-Soltan: One ominous sign after another leads Ebadi to concede that the country is headed for a deep freeze and might come to resemble a military dictatorship like Burma. But that's short-term. "This regime is finished," she says passionately -- unless it changes course soon, and dramatically.

Shirin Ebadi, on the one hand, and the Leveretts on the other. I'll take Ebadi, not because I want her to be right, but because I think the Leveretts are so wrong.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward, and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

His book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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