Coming to Terms with Iran

Avoid War with IranGoing to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett (Henry Holt & Co. 2013)

We seem to be edging ever closer to war with Iran, a war that is being actively supported by the Israeli right wing and American neoconservatives who think we just gave up too soon in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama is resisting: he’s devoted considerable effort to extracting us from the two Bush wars he inherited, and he clearly doesn’t relish starting another than would be an even bigger quagmire.

Yet Obama has failed to articulate an alternative view of Iran that could justify not going to war. Virtually the entire foreign policy and national security establishment in this country thinks that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a rogue state that must be taken down. Obama has not disagreed with that, but, characteristically, he refuses to act on it, either.

flynt and hillary leverett

Flynt and Hillary Leverett

Flynt and Hillary Leverett, almost alone among the Washington foreign policy elite, have for a decade been making the case for serious diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic. They did so within the government in the early George W. Bush years, but both were forced out in 2003 because of their disagreement with the Bush posture on Iran. Since then, they’ve been voices crying in the wilderness of Academe, where you can say whatever you want, but nobody who’s anybody listens.

This is a book by people who have lost all hope of influencing the Movers and Shakers. They name most of them in the course of a systematic, passionate critique of American policy toward Iran since 1979. In their view, the two dominant camps (neoconservatism and liberal internationalism) share the fundamental assumption that it is appropriate and desirable for the United States to exercise political, economic and cultural hegemony across the world because our values are universal. They argue, indeed, that Theodore Roosevelt was the last president who did not subscribe to one or the other of these viewpoints.

Teddy was, they argue, the last “realist” president, a camp with which they associate themselves. The Realist perspective in international relations posits that governments are rational actors that seek to serve their national interests as they understand them. Governments then deal with each other by rational negotiations over conflicting interests. Only in the worst case do conflicting interests lead to war. Mostly, governments pursue their interests by either cooperating with or balancing against other governments. This was the classic “balance of power” that (mostly) kept the peace in 19th century Europe.

going to tehranThe Leveretts make three major points:

  • that the Islamic Republic is a rational actor in its foreign policy, not an ideologically driven, messianic theocracy (as most of the American foreign policy establishment sees it);
  • that the Islamic Republic is a legitimate state which represents, as far as we can tell, the political will of a large majority of Iranians; and
  • that American administrations of both parties have consistently aimed at the destruction of the Islamic Republic as the most significant obstacle to American hegemony in the Middle East.

They conclude by using Nixon’s opening to China as an example (a unique example) of how a president could break through the established myths and paradigms of US China policy to make a truly strategic shift.

In the first part, they make a strong case that Iranian foreign policy since 1979 has indeed been rationally devoted to furthering Iranian interests, by seeking to protect themselves from external threats (such as Saddam Hussein’s prolonged war against them in the 1980s), trying to increase their influence in the greater Middle East, and supporting Shi’a populations in neighboring countries. They don’t say much about the seizure of hostages at the US Embassy, which surely poisoned relations between Iran and the US thereafter. But it is hardly unprecedented for a new revolutionary regime to countenance such a provocation as a way of bolstering internal support.

The second part makes the case that the political order of the Islamic Republic is what it purports to be: a clerically guided electoral regime that has broad (not universal) popular support. They rely heavily on a few public opinion surveys that they consider methodologically sound, which show that a solid majority approve of the political institutions, and that poll results match closely with election results. They underrate the hazards of survey research in a fundamentally authoritarian setting, where significant numbers of respondents may say what they think the authorities want to hear. They also minimize the problem with oversight of elections and elected officials by the unelected Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. It is true that every polity, including the US, has means of filtering out “extreme” candidates and programs. But in Iran, an essentially self-selected group of clerics and their allies are endowed with this role by the constitution.

Still, the Leveretts may well be correct that most Iranians, especially non-elites, are okay with this arrangement. And in any case, the realist perspective that they represent essentially says that a country’s internal arrangements are nobody’s business but its own.

The third part is an extended critique of the failure of successive US administrations to seriously engage with Tehran since 1979 (with the flawed exception of Reagan, who did work out the arms-for-hostages deal that exploded into the Iran-Contra scandal). The penultimate chapter makes the case that both Democratic and Republican administrations (including Obama’s) have bought into seeking hegemony in the Middle East: within that program, the Islamic Republic is the principal obstacle and must be defeated or destroyed. The problem is that the United States cannot actually achieve hegemony, and the more it tries, the worse its position in the region becomes.

The concluding chapter sets up Nixon’s opening to China as a model for the kind of radical reorientation that they advocate with Iran. There are indeed parallels, but China in 1970 was a far bigger fish than Iran today. Absent the Cold War, a reset with Iran ought to be easier. But ask the Cubans about that.

This book is at one level a vendetta against scores of insiders of both parties’ foreign policy establishments, for their failure to see what the Leveretts see about the true interests of the United States in Iran. And it is as such an entertaining window into the backstabbing paranoia of official Washington and its private auxiliaries.

john peelerAt a higher level, though, it is a passionate and deeply knowledgeable window on a perspective that has been almost completely silenced in Washington, the conviction that we and the Iranians can deal with each other rationally and avoid war. Progressives who are working to oppose the war agenda will do well to pay attention, even to these two exiled Cold Warriors. The advocates of war certainly pay attention, and do their best to discredit and silence them.

John Peeler

Sunday, 25 May 2013


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    The Nazi regime in Germany too was ‘what it purports to be’ and arguably a ‘solid majority’ of Germans ‘supported’ it (whether voluntarily or otherwise). According to the Leveretts that seems to mean now that with over 80,000 Syrian dead resulting from Iran’s stiffening and having essentially taken over the Assad regime, we should try more diplomacy – just like, we must suppose, after Chamberlain’s Munich surrender and Germany’s takeover of Czechoslovakia and attack on Poland, we should have engaged in more earnest diplomacy with Hitler. (Actually we’ve had over 30 years of diplomacy with Khomeni and Khamenei’s Iran, but never mind.)

    It’s strange to read that the Leveretts view TR as a model for American presidents. TR famously spoke softly but carried – and was seen ready to wield – a big stick for America’s (and indeed most of the world’s) true interests. Were TR alive and well in the White House today, he would long ago have quietly and firmly made it clear to Khamenei that, no matter how many phony ‘presidential elections’ he stages in Iran, the USA is now ready and able to use a modicum of bunker-busting force to stop him from getting any closer to massive nuclear breakout.

    The Leveretts and their apologists fit into a pseudo ‘progressive’ party line: The USA is indeed the exceptional nation: namely, the prime and indeed only cause for all ills in the world, and therefore the folks abroad that especially merit ‘progressive’ sympathy are not the world’s ordinary people who have friendly feelings for the USA, and certainly not the leaders of friendly democratically inclined nations, but rather the regimes who most loudly proclaim their enmity to the USA, especially the worst dictators and repressers and terror-sponsors. According to pseudo-‘progressivism’ these are the folk that especially deserve our indulgence, our loud expression of pacific disapproval any time that people talk of using force to stop them, and our support as the world’s true heroes. So in their time, Stalin (and Hitler, at least during the days of the Hitler-Stalin pact) and Mao were ‘progressive’ heroes, and nowadays so evidently are Kim and Bashir and Khamenei and the worthies who run Hamas, Hezbollah and the like.

  2. says

    Obama Goes to Iran, with Kerry as Kissinger? Duh, how can the U.S. deal with a regime that calls it the Great Satan, and Israel the Little Satan? Are we going to ask them to dance with the Devil in the pale moon light like the Joker in Batman?

    At least the Chinese were atheists, meaning they know this is the only world, and won’t do anything to destroy it. Muslims, especially the 10% called Shiites believe this world is expendable, since they’re expecting the Mahdi to come any day, and prefer Allah’s Paradise. So why would they compromise their hopes to earn damnation for negotiating with infidels? I don’t think they can.

    As to war, ever since they took the hostages, there’s been a de facto state of war, and the rest is b.s. Too bad, we made the giant mistake of invading Iraq instead of Iran, when Saddam could have helped us overthrow it, allowing us to take him out later with ease. Now it’s problematic if we have enough power to do to Iran what we did to Iraq. We do have super air power, which could knock out the infrastructure including nuclear facilities, leaving the country in the stone age. With the threat of that alone, we might try encouraging anti-regime opposition forces in the cities to overthrow the regime from within. But a Nixon Goes to China scenario is apples and oranges, and unrealistic, sorry.

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