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Bargaining With the Devil

5:34 PM, Apr 10, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, the husband and wife team of former U.S. officials (he was with the CIA and she was with the State Department) who’ve made a second career out of advocacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, have just published a book. Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms With the Islamic Republic of Iran has been roundly panned by critics, most perplexingly for the Leveretts, even by reviewers in places like the New York Times that used to welcome them with open arms.

Calling for a “grand bargain” with Iran, and visionary American leadership modeled after Nixon’s trip to China, the book touches on all the same themes that once excited the Times. In 2006 the paper of record published the Leveretts notorious “redacted” op-ed—“redacted,” as the couple explained, by the CIA under orders from the White House—helping to make them one of Washington’s premier speak-truth-to-power couples. But that was when taking on Bush was an all-entry pass to political, intellectual and cultural credibility, and the Leveretts, who claim to have a privileged insight into Iranian politics, are apparently unaware that the culture of American politics has shifted underneath their feet.

A decade ago, the Times and others were eager to publicize the Leveretts’ unfounded contention that Bush had ignored overtures from Iran and was instead bent on conflict with the Islamic Republic. That same media, with the same political loyalties, is not now interested in crediting the equally ludicrous charge that Obama isn’t trying hard enough to strike a deal with the regime.

The Leveretts’ response has been to lash out at their critics, which is to say the couple’s paranoid dogmatism has blinded them to the fact that the fundamental contours of their argument have been adopted by the institution they had most hoped to influence—not the American press, but the White House itself. The Obama administration not only wants a “grand bargain” with Iran, it has also premised its wider Middle East policy on the notion that Iran’s regional interests are, in the words of the Leveretts, “legitimate.” Instead of writing sulky letters to the editor to complain about their bad reviews, the Leveretts should be taking a victory lap.

For a book proposing an accommodation between Iran and the United States, it’s peculiar that among the book’s negative reviewers only Roya Hakakian, writing in the Wall Street Journal, focuses on the Leveretts’ treatment of the regime’s foreign policy, including its anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. The New York Times’s Laura Secor and the New Republic’s Abbas Milani, on the other hand, choose instead to emphasize the Leveretts’ position on the Islamic Republic’s domestic legitimacy. They challenge the Leveretts’ assertion that the regime represents the political aspirations of the majority of the Iranian people, that the 2009 election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power was not rigged, and that the Green revolution failed because it was backed only by an effete urban minority.

Milani, an Iranian expatriate who teaches at Stanford, and Secor, who is writing a book about her travels in Iran, are right to paint the Leveretts as regime apologists who’ve ingratiated themselves with unsavory figures in its political and security echelons, and from whom they appear to draw much of their information. Milani and Secor are also right to call out the regime for its human rights abuses. And yet the silence of the Obama White House during the 2009 Green revolution points to the obvious fact that, in terms of American interests, it makes little difference whether or not the regime has the consent of the people it governs. The issue rather is whether the United States should treat the Islamic Republic like a legitimate interlocutor regarding Washington’s own regional interests. The problem is that the administration now seems to believe, like the Leveretts and the regime, that it should.

The Leveretts have been at pains to emphasize the reasonable nature of Iranian foreign policy by describing the Islamic republic’s regional project—including its exportation of the Islamic revolution, its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, its interference in Iraq and Afghanistan, its sabotage and threats against the Persian Gulf’s Arab powers—as its “legitimate national interests,” a phrase echoing Soviet propaganda. The reality is that interests are neither legitimate nor illegitimate by nature. If a country is willing to fight for them and can make others concede the point then they're legitimate. Otherwise, the claim to legitimacy is worthless. It is the willingness of U.S. policymakers to commit military resources, including aircraft groups, to ensure the free flow of Persian Gulf energy resources our trading partners rely on that makes stability in this vitally strategic waterway a “legitimate” American interest.

The same holds for the Islamic Republic. There is no obvious reason why Iran should have a say, for instance, in the Arab-Israeli peace process, or Lebanon, just because it claims those interests are “legitimate.” And should Washington, or other powers, compel Iran to stand down, no rhetorical nicety can make these claims “legitimate.” Instead, it is because the Obama administration has stood down in Syria above all that it has effectively signaled its agreement that Iran’s regional interests are “legitimate.”

Last week, former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said that the White House was avoiding a more active role in bringing down Syrian president Bashar al-Assad because it didn’t want to anger the Iranians and complicate negotiations over the regime’s nuclear program (I made a similar argument here). It’s possible however that this might just be an example of the administration’s “strategic messaging,” or how administration policy is sold to the public. Maybe the reason the White House isn’t advancing U.S. interests by toppling Assad is just because Obama is heeding the advice of his political advisers who are warning him against foreign entanglements that might damage his legacy. But that’s not the message the White House wants to put out. Rather, they want to let on that the president has a real strategic worldview: He’s sacrificing Syria to get something much bigger from the Iranians, a deal over the nuclear program. In other words, he’s acknowledging Iran’s “legitimate national interests” for the sake of striking a “grand bargain.”

In the end, it doesn’t much matter whether this is really policy or just “strategic messaging” because the effect is the same—the Iranians read it like this and so do our regional allies. The Israelis must wonder how much of the administration’s Iran policy is in fact “strategic messaging,” and if Obama really does bluff after all. The Sunni powers—especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Turkey—surely share those concerns, but now they have another worry, too, which strangely enough is also part of the Leveretts’ playbook: Nixon’s opening to China analogy.

In the popular imagination, the Nixon in China conceit represents the classic model of a political leader with unimpeachably hawkish credentials being able to reach out to a one-time adversary to make peace. In strategic terms, Nixon’s opening to China came almost a decade after American policymakers first recognized the Sino-Soviet split and realized they could use an opening to China to balance the USSR to the advantage of American interests. Given that the Obama administration has given Iran free rein in Syria, failed to back the Sunni majority there, Nixon in China is precisely the scenario that is giving America’s Sunni allies nightmares. They fear that Obama means to use Iran as a counterforce against them, and that Obama’s “grand bargain” will come at their expense. 

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