Hillary Mann Leverett: From Iran Critic to Iran Apologist

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Hilary Mann Leverett, and her husband Flynt Leverett, both former American national security officials of some repute, have recently turned themselves into the Salahis of foreign policy punditry. (Not my joke, alas, I heard it from a friend). In their recent op-ed in the Times, they argue that Iran is not about to implode, that the recent anti-government demonstrations amounted to very little, if anything, and that the best policy for the Obama Administration to pursue would be one of full-on engagement with the current regime:

The Obama administration's half-hearted efforts at diplomacy with Tehran have given engagement a bad name. As a result, support for more coercive options is building across the American political spectrum. The president will do a real disservice to American interests if he waits in vain for Iranian political dynamics to "solve" the problems with his Iran policy.

As a model, the president would do well to look to China. Since President Richard Nixon's opening there (which took place amid the Cultural Revolution), successive American administrations have been wise enough not to let political conflict -- whether among the ruling elite or between the state and the public, as in the Tiananmen Square protests and ethnic separatism in Xinjiang -- divert Washington from sustained, strategic engagement with Beijing. President Obama needs to begin displaying similar statesmanship in his approach to Iran.

This was not always Hillary Mann Leverett's worldview.

Before she married Flynt Leverett, there was Hillary Mann, hardcore anti-Iran agitator. As an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the late 1990s, she argued that Iran was a primary exporter of terrorism, and that the then-president of Iran, Ayatollah Khatami, was not a reformer and moderate, as he had been widely billed, but a radical in sheep's clothing. In other words, in the late 1990s, before the rise of Ahmadinejad; before the acceleration of Iran's nuclear program; before genocidal anti-Israel rhetoric emanating from Iran had become commonplace; before Iran sponsored the killing of American soldiers; and before the regime slaughtered its own people when they demanded freedom, Hillary Mann believed that Iran was a terror state worthy only of rigorous sanctions:

The April 10 German court finding that Iran's top leaders ordered the assassination of several dissidents in Berlin underscores the hollowness of Europe's policy of engagement with Iran, and presents the U.S. with a unique opportunity to make Iran's leaders pay a real economic price for their brazen disregard of international norms. Unfortunately, recent steps by Washington risk frittering this opportunity away. Most disconcerting was the announcement on April 11-barely 24 hours after the German court ruling-that the U.S. and the European Union (EU) had agreed to pursue avenues for sheltering European companies from the effects of last year's Iran sanctions legislation, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). Belatedly realizing the agreement's corrosive message, the State Department insisted that the agreement contained "no commitment, legal or political, to grant waivers" from ILSA. But the damage was done. The agreement, coming so close on the heels of the German court ruling, served to fuel growing doubts about America's will to vigorously enforce sanctions.

She goes on to write:

The U.S. needs to seize the opportunity created by Germany's indictment of Iran's leaders to reenergize its own policy. Pressing Europe diplomatically is important but not enough, as shown by the EU's weak response to the German court verdict-basically, withdrawing its ambassadors for a few weeks and suspending ministerial meetings. It reflects a lowest common denominator style designed precisely to deflect demands for more serious steps. With American credibility on the line, Washington should make it clear at the highest levels that the U.S. intends to enforce ILSA vigorously to deter further investment in Iran and to make Iran's leaders actually pay a real economic price for their sponsorship of international terrorism.

Her views at the time on Iran's sponsorship of terrorism were clear and uncompromising:

On January 7, 1998, Iran's President Khatemi told America-via CNN-that terrorism "should be condemned . . . and we condemn every form of it in the world." Khatemi also "denied categorically" reports that Iranian officials abroad regularly engage in acts of surveillance against Americans. These are encouraging words. However, a review of Iranian, Arab and American media reports shows that Iran's links to international terrorism appear to have continued unabated since he assumed office in August 1997. U.S. government officials from different agencies responsible for the fight against terror confirmed the thrust of these reports-that Iran remains active in support of international terrorism in each of the areas outlined below-though they did not comment on the veracity of the individual media citations.

So what happened? What changed? Two things: Iran fully embraced its rogue status, and Hillary Mann lost her bearings.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly 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.

Goldberg's 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. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. 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.

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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