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Going 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)

tehran street

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.

The Leveretts make three major points:

going to tehran
  • 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
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  • 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.

At 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

John Peeler

Sunday, 25 May 2013