The L Couple

Michael Crowley at TNR:

Say what you want about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but “he knows how to work a room.” So claims Flynt Leverett, the contrarian Iran analyst who, with his wife Hillary Mann Leverett, paid a visit to the Iranian president in New York City last fall. During the sit-down at Manhattan’s InterContinental Barclay hotel with a group of invited academics, foreign policy professionals, and other Iranophiles, the Leveretts marveled at Ahmadinejad’s attention to detail as the Iranian took copious notes and strove to pronounce their unfamiliar names correctly. “He addresses every person by name. He made a serious effort to address everyone’s issue,” Flynt says. “It was really striking, the retail politics aspect.”

As former Bush White House officials, the Leveretts might seem unlikely company for the diminutive tyrant. But Ahmadinejad has reason to admire the married Middle East analysts. They are, after all, the most prominent voices in the U.S. media arguing that he was legitimately reelected last June, and that the opposition Green Movement is a flash in the pan. “There is no revolution afoot in Iran, and the social base of this movement is not growing; it is, in fact, shrinking,” Flynt recently said on PBS’s “NewsHour.” He has made his case everywhere from msnbc to NPR to The New York Times op-ed page, where he and his wife have made three shared appearances since late May.

To the Leveretts, Ahmadinejad’s Bill Clinton-like personal touch underscores their argument that, far from a thug repressing his people, he is, in fact, a charming leader with broad Iranian support–and one whose true nature the United States fails to understand. And, in any case, they say, moral indignation over his regime’s character distracts us from clear strategic thinking. Both economic sanctions and the Green Movement will fail to contain Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions. America’s only choice is to engage Iran, nuclear bomb or no. For that, they have earned the enmity of former friends and colleagues–and even drawn death threats. “We are portrayed as un-American, stooges of the regime,” complains Hillary.

But it’s not the Leveretts’ ultra-realist policy views that are so discomfiting. It is the sense that they cross a line into making apologies for the loathsome Ahmadinejad. And that makes for one of Washington’s most intriguing mysteries: How did two ex-Bush aides become the Iranian regime’s biggest intellectual defenders?

[...]

What happened? Some critics accuse the Leveretts of becoming corporate shills. Their salon dinners, for instance, have included executives from oil companies that have done business in Iran, including Norway-based Statoil and French Total. The Leveretts firmly deny that they are peddling access or trying to affect policy for corporate gain. Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, says he recently conducted a review of their business ties and is “entirely satisfied there is no conflict. … The idea that their ideas are compromised is without foundation.”

Perhaps the Leveretts were transformed by what they saw as Bush’s blown opportunity to deal with Iran. Hillary says her dealings with Iranian diplomats as a Bush White House aide at the start of the Afghanistan war made her understand Tehran’s willingness to engage. “It seems that the Leveretts are almost frozen in time circa 2003 on this,” says Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner. The Leveretts have also come to accept the realist critique that Israel occupies too great a role in America’s foreign policy calculus; Flynt clashed with fellow Bush officials about what peace-process concessions Israel should be asked to make, for instance. “For a lot of pro-Israel groups, these [views of Iran] are non-starters,” he says.

Or perhaps, on some level, they have actually grown to admire Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In our meeting, I pressed them to say just how they feel about the Iranian leader. Geopolitics aside, did they consider him a despicable human being? “I think he’s actually a quite intelligent man,” Flynt replied. “I think he also has really extraordinary political skills.” “[T]he idea that he’s stupid or doesn’t understand retail politics is also pretty divorced from reality,” Hillary added. But that wasn’t the question.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Michael Crowley has a devastating piece out now on Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, the former National Security Council staffers and expert self-marginalizers. In it, the Leverett does something I didn’t think she was foolish enough to do, which is to tell a reporter what he actually thinks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The verdict: He likes him! Also, and more egregiously, he defends the Iranian regime for showing restraint in the face of pro-democracy demonstrator

Kevin Sullivan:

I’ve never met the Leveretts, nor have I ever spoken with them about Iran. I have at times found their analysis on the post-June 12 upheaval a bit exaggerated, biased and even downright peculiar. That said, I think Crowley undermines his own article with this acknowledgment of their work:

It’s not obvious that this analysis is wrong–especially in the wake of disappointing Green turnout last week on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution–although, in a state willing to beat, arrest, and even kill protesters, gauging the popular mood is never simple.OK, fair enough. But flip this around on those who have been cheer leading for the so-called Green Movement, and the same criticism applies. Analysts and experts – clearly wearing their green hearts on their sleeves – have been repeatedly proven wrong about the size and capabilities of the Green Movement, yet no one suspects these well-intentioned partisans of nefarious, or even treasonous ties to agents or officials inside Iran (and if you think the Green Movement is somehow operating outside of Iran’s inner-circle you simply haven’t been paying attention). While I reserve my own criticisms of the Leveretts, I find the very personal and often malicious attacks on them to be really uncalled for, not to mention a distraction from the debate at hand. (incidentally, the Leveretts have written a brief and fair response to some of the nastier charges levied against them.)

Tim Fernholz at Tapped:

Disappointing many who had appreciated their earlier analysis, Leverett and Hillary Mann-Leverett, his wife and frequent writing partner, did not react the same way. Instead, they’ve dismissed the Greens and insisted on more engagement with Ahmadinejad, even comparing Obama to Bush. It’s a strange place to be, one that doesn’t seem to take into account the events of the last year.

Michael Crowley has written a piece exploring their position. He begins and ends his well-reported story with the suggestion that the Leveretts harbor some admiration for Ahmadinejad. Certainly, the Iranian president is despicable, but the restless urge to demonize people like Ahmadinejad has never paid dividends for the United States’ foreign policy; contests of who can hate more do not international achievement make. The Leveretts’ recognition of the Iranian president’s political abilities — and his rationality — is not an indictment of their arguments. Frankly, I’m more curious why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn’t make an appearance in the article, since he is generally recognized as Iran’s true leader.

To me, it seems the reason that the Leveretts are so keen to engage the Ahmadinejad regime is that they are realists. They have made the calculation that the Green movement is not likely to overthrow the government soon and that America’s near-term interests are more important than supporting human rights abroad. That’s not a liberal foreign policy, but it also doesn’t require some malign affection for a dangerous theocrat.

Daniel Larison:

What is the point of Crowley’s question? To establish that we are all capable of meaningless moralizing about a foreign leader? If the Leveretts refused to be pulled in by this, so much the better for them. This is more of the same tired personalization of foreign policy. If we obsess over a foreign leader as an embodiment of villainy, it will keep us from having to think rationally about real policy options, and it will absolutely prevent the consideration of any sort of sustained diplomatic engagement. The only purpose for this obsession with Ahmadinejad that I can see is to make it easier to advocate confrontational and aggressive policies against Iran. It is a way of substituting emotion and passion for critical thinking about the potential for improved U.S.-Iranian relations. It is mostly a way of striking the right pose for lack of anything else to contribute to the debate. Iran hawks may have nothing but terrible ideas, but at least they have sufficient hate for Ahmadinejad!

Andrew Sullivan

Patrick Appel:

My main problem with the Leveretts is, like certain hawks, they project a false sense of certainty about the situation in Iran. No one knows exactly how the opposition movement will manifest. The Leveretts assert arguable claims as fact without explaining how they are reaching their conclusions.

Daniel Larison responds to Appel:

The claims the Leveretts have made about the presidential election are substantially no different than those made by Stratfor analysts from the very beginning. All of them have made reasonable arguments that Mousavi voters in general and Green movement protesters in particular do not represent anything like a majority of the population, and they have made fairly common-sense observations that the Green movement has been losing strength as time goes on. Skeptics of the movement’s strength have also cast doubt on claims that the regime is widely seen as illegitimate by most Iranians. These claims have been central to the latest wave of regime change arguments, which have focused on helping the protest movement bring down the government, and the claims are probably wrong. The skeptics’ doubt is informed by what little apparently reliable evidence about Iranian public opinion we have. Compared with this admittedly sketchy and incomplete picture, the Leveretts’ critics cannot muster much more than anecdotal evidence whose importance they continually exaggerate.

No one has obsessively attacked George Friedman et al. as regime apologists or “intellectual defenders” of Ahmadinejad. It seems to me that the Leveretts aren’t being targeted with smears and insults principally because of their analysis, which Crowley does not really attempt to dispute, but because of the policy course they recommend, which is significant, sustained engagement with Iran. What Leveretts’ critics seem to want to do is identify this engagement approach with sympathy and collusion with the regime. This is the same thing that some of the Leveretts’ harshest critics were trying to do when they were attacking Trita Parsi as lobbyist for the regime.

Lee Smith at Tablet:

The opposition camp has been critical of Leverett for his collaborations with Mohamed Marandi, director of Tehran University’s Institute for North American Studies and the son of Khamenei’s personal physician, who appears to have facilitated Leverett’s upcoming visit. “The University of Tehran is the institution which has applied for our visas,” Leverett explained to me.

Leverett was offended when I asked if the Revolutionary Guard had played a role in his invitation, and yet there’s little doubt that his co-author is personally and professionally close to the regime—and publicly justifies some of its most brutal actions. Since the June elections, Marandi has been the Ahmadinejad government’s key spokesperson in the English-language media, and he recently defended the regime’s sentencing opposition members to death. His true occupation may be even more unsavory. “He passes himself off as an academic, but he’s with the Ministry of Intelligence,” says Ramin Ahmadi, co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentary Center and a professor of medicine at Yale.

Of course, if you need to make the case that you have a genuine channel to the regime’s inner sanctum, it’s hard to do better than to partner with a hard-core regime man like Marandi. In the realist view, Leverett’s strong stomach and lack of sentimental attachments is proof that he is coming from the right place. “Flynt comes from a very strong national-interest point of view and emphasizes energy security,” says David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and a frequent guest at dinner seminars at the Leveretts’ Northern Virginia home. “They’re background dinners, usually about eight to 10 people, weapons experts, energy experts, Iranian nationals, with varied points of view on the Middle East,” he says. While Frum explains that Leverett’s “domestic politics are on the conservative, not liberal, side,” it is also true that Leverett’s fame and acceptance in Washington policymaking circles rests on the fact that he was lionized by liberals for his opposition to the Bush administration’s Iran policy.

The story of Leverett’s rise and fall and rise embodies the upside-down weirdness of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when obscure Middle East experts and Washington bureaucrats occupied center stage of the national debate. It’s safe to say that in less turbulent times, and under a less controversial president, no one would have ever heard of Flynt Leverett. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Leverett earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University, earned a doctorate in politics from Princeton, honed his Arabic-language skills in Damascus, and joined the CIA during a period when the agency was not especially known for running agents, or paying much attention to Iran.

In 2001, after a decade at the agency, Leverett landed a plum position on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, then headed by Richard Haass, and was subsequently named senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff. In the interagency process that coordinates policymakers in the bureaucracies across Washington—defense, state, White House, CIA—Leverett earned a reputation for committing what are known as “process fouls.” “That’s when you intentionally exclude other policymakers,” says a former senior-level Defense Department official. “Leverett did that to us all the time, withholding a paper and cutting us out of the debate because he feared, rightly, we were going to disagree with him.”

But it was Leverett’s disagreements with the president that, in his account, compelled him, as he wrote in 2005, “to leave the administration.” However, as another former member of the Bush NSC staff explained, Leverett did not leave his post by choice. “The job of a director on the NSC staff is bureaucratic,” says the former Bush official. “If there’s a deputies’ meeting, you take notes. When you get a letter from a foreign government, you log it in and draft a response.” Leverett continually missed deadlines and misplaced documents, and the NSC Records office had a long list of his delinquencies. His office was notoriously messy—documents were strewn over chairs, windowsills, the floor, and piled high on his desk. For Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser and a famously well-organized “clean desk” type, repeatedly missing deadlines and losing important letters was simply not tolerable behavior for an NSC officer, and Leverett was told to leave.

Returning to the CIA briefly before retiring from government service in the spring of 2003, Leverett moved on to the Brookings Institution, and then the New America Foundation, as he began to reinvent himself as an Iran expert with the help of his wife. Hillary Mann Leverett claimed that after rotating back to the State Department from the White House in April 2003 she had received a fax from a Swiss diplomat acting as an intermediary on behalf of the Iranians, offering what the Leveretts would come to call the Grand Bargain. According to the Swiss fax, she said, the Islamic Republic would cease support for terrorist organizations, terminate its nuclear weapons program, and recognize Israel if the United States would in turn guarantee that it had no designs to topple the regime.

So why didn’t the Americans bite? As the Leveretts explained in a series of interviews and their own articles, including, most famously, a 2006 op-ed in the New York Times published with redactions ordered by the Bush White House, it was because of Bush and the neoconservatives, who intended to lead the United States to war again.

The Leverettts responds:

In two previous posts on this blog, “Explaining the Concept of ‘Learning Curve’ to Jeffrey Goldberg” and “Explaining the Concept of ‘Facts’ to Jeffrey Goldberg”, Hillary Mann Leverett responded to a pair of truly shoddy pieces of “journalism” written about her by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.  Now we write jointly in response to a third such offfense, “The Iranian Revolutionary Guard-Flynt Leverett Connection”, which Mr. Goldberg posted on his blog yesterday.  Goldberg’s post both links to and quotes from an “article” published by one Lee Smith earlier this week in The Tablet—an online publication which, until this week, we had never heard of.  Mr. Goldberg, it turns out, is a contributing editor to The Tablet (according to the publication’s website).

In Mr. Goldberg’s previous attempts to write about Hillary (with whom he has, to this day, never spoken or sought to speak), he displayed a fact-free approach to journalism that we found truly unfortunate from someone who works for such a historically august publication as The Atlantic.  In his current effort to portray Flynt (with whom Mr. Goldberg has also never spoken or sought to speak), Mr. Goldberg stoops to a new low in attempted character assassination—a low set by Mr. Smith.  Mr. Smith’s “article” is chock full of unsubstantiated statements and  fabricated allegations.  For the record, we would like to respond to these unsubstantiated statements and fabricated allegations lies here.

[...]

Where to begin?!  By way of background, we should inform our readers that we are planning a trip to the Middle East next week.  Our itinerary includes Beirut and Damascus.  If our application for visas is approved, we might also be going to Tehran.  (As Middle East specialists, we travel to the Middle East multiple times each year.  We have been wanting to visit Iran for some time, and accepted an invitation from the University of Tehran to do so.)  It seems strange to us that people we don’t know have become so interested in our travel plans of late.  Mr. Smith is certainly very focused on the subject.  He bizarrely asserts that “Western scholars and policy wonks alike understand that access to the [Iranian] regime is a form of currency that can make you powerful or rich or both…all see access to the Iranian regime as the biggest prize in the foreign policy game”.

Considering the amount of grief we have to put up with because we actually want to talk to Iranians, including government officials, both inside Iran and outside the country, we are tempted to conclude that Mr. Smith is describing some parallel universe to the one that we live in.  We don’t know of a single “Western scholar” or “policy wonk” (and we know a lot of people in both categories) who thinks that access to the Iranian regime is going to make them powerful, rich, or both.

Lee Smith responds:

It is true, of course, that access alone does not make anyone rich or powerful, but it is a prerequisite if you wish to act an intermediary between closed societies and Western companies, which is exactly what the Leveretts are up to in Washington. I obtained several emails sent by the Leveretts and pertaining to their business, one of which is a November 2007 message inviting Trita Parsi to one of their “background dinners.” These dinners, which the Leveretts present as a kind of salon, help to generate business for an energy and consulting firm called Stratega, whose CEO happens to be Hillary Mann Leverett. The guests that night included representatives from Norway’s Statoil company, including Ali Ghezelbash, an owner of Atieh Bahar, which is an Iranian consulting firm that in the past facilitated business with Iranian industries, especially in the energy sector, controlled at one time by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In 2006, Statoil was fined $21 million for a 2002 bribe securing “development of a critical Iranian petroleum project.”

In Leveretts’ response to my article, they also claimed to have been quite offended when I suggested while interviewing them that their prospective trip to Iran “was facilitated via Muhammad Marandi on behalf of the IRGC,” or the Revolutionary Guards Corps. They charge that this information was made up, either by my sources or by me.

UPDATE: Greg Scoblete

Larison responds to Scoblete

Patrick Appel

Kevin Sullivan responsd to Appel

Larison responds to Appel

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  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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