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The Race for Iran


Yesterday was the 10th day of the Muslim holy month of Muharram—commemorated by Shi’a Muslims for centuries as the holy day of Ashura.  (We send our best wishes to all of our readers who are observing this special time.)  One of our readers highlighted something truly striking that happened yesterday, in connection with the observance of Ashura, but which was almost completely ignored in Western media coverage. 

In Istanbul—capital of the former Ottoman Empire and last seat of the Sunni caliphate—Ashura processions drew tens of thousands of Turks into the streets; even though the majority of Turkish Muslims are Sunni, at least 20 percent are Shi’a (most Alevi, with a relatively small number of “Twelver” Shi’a).  Notwithstanding freezing temperatures, an Ashura ceremony filled an Istanbul square with several thousand people.  The two main speakers at this event were Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who continues to advise the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on international affairs. 

Erdoğan—whose Justice and Development Party is Sunni Islamist in orientation—said that the tragedy at Karbala 1,330 years ago affects all Muslims and should serve as a source of unity between Sunni and Shi’a.

“Our prayers, cries, and screams have been echoing in the sky for 1,300 years…Hussein’s sacrifice is [a] unification rather than a farewell, it is a beginning rather than an end, brotherhood rather than separation.  It is solidarity and integration…Nobody is superior to anyone in these lands, not the Sunni to the Shiites, not the Turkish to the Kurdish, the Laz to the Circassian, or the Persian to the Arabs…We are all the same in this land, together, brothers.” 

Dr. Velayati described Imam Hussein’s uprising as a lesson to Muslims about the moral and spiritual imperative to rise against bullying powers.  In Velayati’s account, Imam Hussein remains today the symbol of uprising against oppressors and tyranny.  The former Iranian Foreign Minister linked Hussein’s struggle to the cause of modern-day Palestinians, fighting to defend their rights in the face of Israel’s ongoing tyranny against Muslims, arguing that all Muslims are called to stand with the Palestinians in this fight.

Erdoğan’s participation in the Ashura ceremony undoubtedly reflects a mixture of considerations—including a genuine commitment to ameliorating and overcoming religious and ethnic divisions that continue to plague his country and its regional neighborhood, plus an interest in “pushing” back against narrow and highly sectarian Sunni fundamentalist currents in the region.  But it also reflects a judgment that this was an appropriate moment to underscore publicly that Turkish-Iranian ties remain strong and are grounded in the deep wellsprings of a shared culture and religious heritage as well as in overlapping strategic needs. 

In the aftermath of the Wikileaks disclosures, there has been much chatter in Western media and policy circles about the degree of Arab antipathy toward the Islamic Republic.  We have previously warned against underestimating the extent of Iran’s “soft power” in the Arab world (see here)—especially based on highly selective and biased reporting on the presumed attitudes of some Arab elites (see here).  But those doing the chattering would also be well advised to ponder that America’s closest Arab allies—Egypt and Saudi Arabia—are entering a period of political uncertainty because of impending changes in top-level leadership, and are, in any event, losing influence across the region (Egypt even more than Saudi Arabia, but the trend is clear in both cases). 

Turkey, by contrast, is a dynamic and rising force in the region whose leaders have captured the attention and respect of publics across the Muslim world.  It is clearly an important partner for the Islamic Republic.  But part of why Erdoğan, his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and their associates have proven to be so effective is that they understand strategic realities—including that the Islamic Republic is an important partner for Turkey.  More than any other factor, Turkish-Iranian cooperation undergirds what our colleague Alastair Crooke describes as the emergence of a strategically consequential “northern tier” in the Middle East (including Syria, important non-state actors like HAMAS and Hizballah, and, at least prospectively, Iraq, in addition to Iran and Turkey), see here.  Western analysts and commentators who continue to highlight what they portray as the Islamic Republic’s marginalization in the region really need to think again. 

While Western media largely ignored events in Istanbul yesterday, they were able to pay attention to Iran-related non-events.   In this regard, Scott Peterson—whose overt pro-Mousavi/pro-Green bias radically skewed his coverage of the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election and its aftermath—published an emblematic piece in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, see here, about Ashura in Tehran, which continues in the line of most of his recent reporting on Iranian politics.  In his story (filed from Istanbul, where he could have been writing about Erdoğan and Velayati at the Ashura commemoration there), Peterson claims that, on Ashura last year, the Green movement, “confident in their numbers and in standing up to tyranny on Ashura”, had “protested in force”, leading “many Green Movement activists” to predict even greater success, “perhaps even the end of the regime, in the next showdown, set for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Feb. 11, 2010.”  But, as we predicted in the immediate aftermath of Ashura last year, see here, in the real world, nothing of the sort was going to happen; February 11, 2010 turned out to be a huge bust for the Green Movement, see here.  What transpired on Ashura last year was, in reality, both a clear indicator of the Green Movement’s political decline and a catalyst that accelerated this decline.  Peterson’s recounting of these events provides confirmation (inadvertent, we are sure) for the extensive collaboration between Western reporters and Green Movement activists that so thoroughly distorted Western coverage of Iran’s domestic politics in the wake of the 2009 presidential election. 

In his story yesterday, Peterson had to acknowledge that the Green Movement was “nowhere to be seen” in this year’s Ashura observances in Tehran, see here.  But hope springs eternal among at least some of Peterson’s Iranian contacts; as one of them told him, “We can’t create the ‘trigger’ of instability, [we’re] not powerful enough yet…We might be small now, but any small imbalance and we spread like wildfire”.  

An accurate and sober reading of political reality in the Islamic Republic and, indeed, across the region is essential if the United States and other Western countries are to formulate policies that promote real Western interests and foster regional stability.  Inaccurate and ideologically heated analysis, on the other hand, drives the United States closer to another misguided and lethally counterproductive war in the Middle East.  But, as far as Western media are concerned:  non-events (including some “hoped for” future that has nothing to do with current Iranian political realities) warrant a news story, but a profound and currently ongoing shift in the Middle East’s balance of power (which, among other things, entails a pronounced reduction in American influence in the region) does not. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



One of our readers has pointed out that, when I was a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 1996-1998, I wrote pieces which reflect different views about the Islamic Republic of Iran (and other matters) than those reflected on www.RaceForIran.com and other places where I’ve published since I left government service in 2006.  I addressed this issue in January 2010, see here, in response to an article Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on his blog at The Atlantic attacking me—and citing many of the same points as our commenter—for having “lost [my] bearings”.  I would like to reiterate a number of points I made in my post from January, as they are relevant in responding to the more recent comments made on www.RaceForIran.com.  I would then like to respond to a more specific allegation from the commenter on www.RaceForIran.com—namely, that my husband and I “take sides” on Iran’s domestic politics and that we make recommendations about the best course for U.S. policy based on those partisan preferences.  (That’s not a criticism advanced by Goldberg.)       

First, as I wrote in January: 

“There is a [simple and compelling] explanation for the evolution of my views about Iran over the course of my professional career:  I have learned from experience—including experience actually negotiation with Iranians as a U.S. diplomat

In the 1990s, when I worked at the Washington Institute—which was created by AIPAC staff as a non-profit, 501(c)(3) “think tank” to influence substantive policy discussions in Washington about the Middle East—I was indeed part of the intellectual apparatus that helped justify the use of unilateral primary and secondary sanctions by the United States Government as a way to pressure Iran and other governments that Washington had designated as state sponsors of terrorism.  My work for the Institute clearly reflects that point of view, which had significant influence over the formulation of America’s Iran policy during the 1990s. 

However, after entering the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer in 1998, I had the opportunity to negotiate directly with Iranian counterparts on matters related to Afghanistan.  I did this first as a political adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, where I represented the United States in the so-called “6+2” framework (encompassing Afghanistan’s six neighbors, including Iran, along with Russia and the United States) during 2000-2001.  Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I was asked to move from my post at our UN Mission to join the National Security Council staff at the White House as Director for Iran and Afghanistan.  In this role, I participated for almost two years in regular (effectively monthly) meetings with Iranian counterparts to coordinate U.S. and Iranian policies regarding the overthrow of the Taliban, stabilizing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s defeat, and dealing with Al-Qa’ida operatives trying to flee Afghanistan as a consequence of the U.S. invasion.

From this experience, I saw first-hand that the first approach—diplomatic isolation, sanctions, and economic pressure—did not and could not work to influence Iranian decision-making on issues that matter to the United States.  As a result, by the time of the 9/11 attacks, I was intellectually prepared to have at least an open mind regarding Iranian messages that those attacks had been so strategically consequential that Tehran and Washington could and should work together to stabilize Afghanistan and fight Al-Qa’ida

During my experience actually negotiating with senior counterparts from the Islamic Republic, I saw first-hand how my Iranian interlocutors were able to negotiate productively, deliver on specific commitments, and make concessions and calculate trade-offs across a range of issues…Moreover, as a result of my interactions with senior Iranian officials, I came to understand better the role of Iran’s ties to groups that Washington designates as terrorist organizations in the Islamic Republic’s broader national security strategy…My current views on U.S. policy reflect, I believe, that I have learned from professional experience and am capable of adapting my policy views in light of a more accurate understanding of reality.” 

I stand by those words today, and believe they address most of the issues raised by the recent commenter on www.RaceForIran.com.  As I noted above, this commenter makes a more specific allegation—that my husband and I “take sides” regarding Iranian politics.  He falsely asserts that, when President Khatami was in office, we supposedly favored sanctioning, isolating, and perhaps even bombing Iran.  But, after President Ahmadinejad came to office, we allegedly did a volte face to favor diplomatic engagement.  This account is wrong, in every aspect. 

  • While I was in government, I advocated strongly for and was one of the few U.S. officials who actively participated in robust diplomatic engagement with Khatami’s administration, as the public record amply demonstrates.  I believe that Khatami’s decision to continue engagement with the United States in the face of ongoing hostility and antagonism from senior American officials—including the President of the United States (remember the “axis of evil”?)—was courageous and protected Iran from being next in line in the George W. Bush Administration’s frenzied search for targets in the post-9/11 environment.    


  •  Once we were out of government, my husband and I have consistently advocated, in public, for serious, strategically-grounded U.S. engagement with the Islamic Republic, aimed at a fundamental realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations.  My husband, who left government service in 2003, did that for the last two years of President Khatami’s presidential tenure; we have both done so after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became President of the Islamic Republic.

My husband and I do not “take sides” in Iranian politics.  It would be inappropriate for us to do so, as we are not Iranians.  Unlike many commentators on Iranian affairs, we have no personal or vested interests in particular political outcomes.  We comment on Iranian politics as analysts, not partisans. 

Furthermore, unlike many American commentators on Iran-related issues, we do not frame our analysis to position ourselves for future government positions or to favor or oppose any particular U.S. administration.  Our recommendations regarding U.S. policy toward Iran, both in and out of government, have been grounded on our best judgments about what course optimally serves U.S. interests and the cause of regional stability—certainly not on the basis of purported partisan preferences regarding the Islamic Republic’s internal politics.     

We saw from inside the U.S. government how this perspective was sorely missing in the public debate over the George W. Bush Administration’s plans for the United States to invade Iraq, overthrow its government, and launch a grand project to remake the Middle East—a project that has killed at least 100,000 Iraqis and badly damaged America’s strategic position and international standing.  We are determined to do everything we can to make sure that this perspective is not missing from public discussion in the United States and elsewhere about how to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.   

–Hillary Mann Leverett 



It was announced today that Ali Akbar Salehi, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and one of the Islamic Republic’s vice presidents, will replace Manouchehr Mottaki as his country’s Foreign Minister.  Some of the same American insta-pundits who had concluded before noon on June 13, 2009 that the Islamic Republic’s presidential election the day before had to have been fraudulently conducted have been giving comments to the media dismissive of the significance of Salehi’s appointment.  In April, we excerpted from and linked to an extended interview that Salehi gave to CBS News, see here.  We thought it appropriate to reprint some of that interview here—particularly Salehi’s remarks about the United States, which should be read by all those who continue to circulate the false and ahistorical argument that the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is irrevocably grounded in hostility to America.  It is worth recalling that Salehi received his undergraduate education at the American University of Beirut, and earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Noting his years of graduate study at MIT and his regret that U.S.-Iranian relations are so poor, Salehi said: 

“I have a lot of respect for the US…For the people of the US.  And I’ve always said this:  I do not consider the US as a country.  I think the US belongs to the whole human kind.  It’s a human heritage…I don’t think history will be able to produce another country like the US.  Because it’s a country that has served humanity so much, in terms of technology, in terms of science…Most of my professors were from the US.  Even my Bachelor’s degree is from the American University of Beirut.  Again I had a lot of US professors there.  I feel indebted to them.  This is part of my religion.  You know, whoever teaches you something, you are indebted to them for your life.  So my respect goes for the entire US people.  But you see this is different when it comes to the actions of their government.” 

If the United States were prepared to accept the Islamic Republic as it is, and not as some Americans might wish it to be, and to deal with it as a sovereign state with legitimate interests, there is no insurmountable cultural “barrier” on the Iranian side to positive U.S.-Iranian relations.  We wish Dr. Salehi all the best in his new post. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



It seems like a bad Bush-era joke today that U.S. officials relied on information solicited from Iraqi defectors with code names like “curveball” to make their case for invading Iraq (and leaving at least 100,000 civilians dead).  A significant portion of that information was funneled through the Defense Department’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), created in 2002 by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith to “find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to be true—that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States”.  But the Wikileaks cables show that Obama Administration officials are happy to be carrying on a similar Bush-era program focused on Iran, intended to elicit and solicit information from would-be Iranian defectors and other Iranians who simply wish to travel to the United States.  

In 2005—while Khatami was still President of the Islamic Republic—Bush Administration officials decided they wanted to significantly expand their operations to elicit and solicit information from would-be Iranian defectors (they didn’t actually expand the operations until 2006).  The idea was to establish new or fortify existing offices in countries neighboring Iran (Azerbaijan, Iraq, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates) where U.S. embassy or consulate officials could come into contact with Iranians—a significant portion of whom would be coming into the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a visa or to establish a relationship with a U.S. official for some other reason (e.g., to gain financial remuneration for information the U.S. official would want to hear or to punish the government of the Islamic Republic by providing derogatory information about it to its foe).  The Wikileaks cables we have seen so far show that, just as happened in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. government, under the George W. Bush Administration and now under the Obama Administration, is getting what it pays for through its “Iran watchers”—information that is intensely critical of the Islamic Republic and often flat out wrong. 

When asked, after the Iraq war, about the bogus information provided to the U.S. Government about Iraq’s WMD programs and links to Al-Qa’ida by sources associated in the Iraqi National Congress (INC, the neoconservatives’ favorite Iraqi opposition group), the INC’s leader, Ahmad Chalabi, told The Daily Telegraph that “we are heroes in error…as far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful.  That tyrant Saddam is gone, and the Americans are in Baghdad.  What was said before is not important.” 

Now, the Wikileaks documents tell us that the State Department’s Iran watchers are effectively replicating, with regard to Iran, what OSP did with regard to Iraq.  When the Iran watcher program was formally launched in 2006, then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns compared it to the “Riga station”, operating at the U.S. Embassy in Latvia between the Russian Revolution in 1917 and America’s recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933, with the aim of collecting information and providing analysis about developments in the Soviet Union, at a time when the United States did not have an embassy in Moscow.  But the real comparison, in our judgment, is with OSP. 

This is genuinely sad; we know some of the State Department officers who have served as Iran watchers since the program was launched in 2006, and think well of them as professionals and as people.  But they are part of a system that is set up to draw out as many Iranian “heroes in error” as possible; this set up, in turn, guarantees that Washington policymakers will see reporting streams about Iran that are corrupted in much the same way as those produced on Iraq by OSP.  And that outcome is worsened by a seemingly irreducible level of analytic mediocrity, less-than-complete competence, and overwhelming eagerness to please superiors in Washington exhibited by some of the State Department officers assigned to Iran watcher positions.   

We highlight below six examples from the Wikileaks documents to illustrate what we mean.  (There is, unfortunately, a lot more material of this sort that can be gleaned from the Wikileaks cables.)    

1)              The Iran watcher in Ashgabat reported on June 15, 2009—three days after the Islamic Republic’s presidential election—that, according to an Iranian source who had gone to the Iranian Embassy in the Turkmen capital to cast his vote, “everyone he spoke to who was there to cast their ballot said they were voting for Mousavi.”  This quote is used to reinforce what was already becoming the conventional wisdom in State Department channels—that the election results must have been fraudulent.  The source’s story may well have been true—the official election results, which State Department sources and most Western commentators routinely disparage, show that Mousavi decisively carried the votes of Iranians living abroad.  No Western commentator, to our knowledge, has ever claimed that this particular aspect of the results is also fraudulent.  Nevertheless, the Iran watcher in Ashgabat used his source’s anecdote to support what was rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom in State Department channels—that the official results were undoubtedly the product of fraud.        

The same source also passed on to the Iran watcher in Ashgabat an assessment that, “based on calculations from Mousavi’s campaign observers who were present at polling stations around the country and who witnessed the vote counts, Mousavi received approximately 26 million (or 61%) of the 42 million votes cast in Friday’s election, followed by Mehdi Karroubi (10-12 million).  According to [the source’s] sources, Ahmadinejad received a maximum of 4-5 million votes, with the remainder going to Mohsen Rezai.” 

These numbers may fit with Western observers’ preferred narrative—but there is no objective basis for believing them.  Polling data from both Iranian and Western polling organizations gives no ground for believing that Karroubi received anything close to 10-12 million votes.  Furthermore, those Mousavi supporters with whom we’ve spoken and who think there must have been fraud—although they’ve never explained how it was perpetrated—still acknowledge that Ahmadinejad received at least 10-12 million votes.          

Unfortunately, Obama Administration officials—just like their Bush era predecessors—like hearing what they want to hear, regardless of whether that relates to reality.  A cable from the State Department on June 19, 2009, from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman—who previously distinguished himself by blowing virtually every major call about the direction of Lebanese domestic politics during his tenure as the U.S. ambassador in Beirut—commended this officer and Embassy Ashgebat for “its excellent reporting on the Iranian elections”.  Assistant Secretary Feltman noted that “Embassy insights were extremely useful for their timeliness and for the helpful view from ‘man on the street’ Iranians.”  (Never mind that the embassy officer is prohibited by the U.S. government from entering Iran and must, instead, report the views of “man on the street Iranians” who are not in Iran but in Ashgabat).  “This excellent reporting provided key insights to 7th-floor principals and [the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs]…This crucial information has helped [the Bureau] and key principals in deciphering the maze of Iranian electoral politics…You have set a high standard for your colleagues here in Washington and elsewhere.” 

2)              The Iran watcher in Baku reported in September 2009 that one of his Iranian sources said that “almost everyone he knew voted for Mousavi, and was angered by the fabricated result.”  It may well be true that “almost everyone” the source knows voted by Mousavi.  But this is roughly comparable to the analytic line of a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side we know, who still thinks George W. Bush’s re-election victory in 2004 must have been the product of fraud because no one she knows voted for Bush.  On this point, we should give at least some credit to the Baku Iran watcher’s source—while everyone he knew allegedly voted for Mousavi, he acknowledged that most Iranians saw the post-election fallout as “an issue for Tehranis”.   

3)              While this particular item does not relate to the Iran watchers’ Iranian sources, we think it is worth highlighting all the same.  Iran watchers in Dubai reported in August 2009 that controversy over the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election had undermined Ahmadinejad’s “standing among moderate Arabs, who have come to view Ahmadinejad’s administration as oppressive, unpopular, and undemocratic”.  The evidence for this?  A handful of commentaries on the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiyya; some data-free, opinion-laden statements by Al-Arabiyya executives; similar sorts of statements by individual Lebanese and Saudi “commentators”; and the observations of a Syrian-born “journalist and blogger” based in Dubai.  In contrast to these anecdotal, idiosyncratic, and completely unsubstantiated observations, reputable polls conducted by Western polling organizations and scholars show that Iran’s “soft power” on the Arab street remains fundamentally undiminished.  

4)              In the run-up to the February 11 (22 Bahman), 2010 celebration of the anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding, the Iran watcher in Baku breathlessly reported that “more than a dozen Iranian contacts…including several Iran-based interviewees”, predicted “massive demonstrations in Tehran, and significant protests in Tabriz, Mashad, Isfahan, and some smaller cities.  Many asserted that pre-demonstration planning, propaganda, and organization activities by opposition supporters (especially students) is far more noticeable and fractionalized compared to previous demonstrations.  Several commentators claimed that while pro-Mousavi and pro-Karroubi websites are still important sources of information and encouragement, they are no longer the only or even main reference points for determined oppositionists.  ‘Neither Moussavi nor Karroubi can stop this (opposition protests) now,’ one social activist contended.” 

It is unfortunate that the Iran-watcher in Baku chose to rely on “more than a dozen” agenda-driven sources to hype the anticipated anti-Islamic Republic turnout on the 22 Bahman anniversary.  Instead—as we predicted—the anniversary produced huge demonstrations in support of the Islamic Republic, and was a colossal bust for the Green movement [link to post]. 

5)              The Iran watcher in Baku also reported in February 2010, citing an Iranian source described as a “former non-Marxist revolutionary activist”, that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had so infuriated Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari at a recent meeting of the Supreme National Security Council in Tehran that Jafari “slapped Ahmadinejad in the face, causing an uproar and an immediate call for a break in the meeting, which was never resumed…[the Supreme National Security Council] did not meet again for another two weeks, after Ayatollah Janati successfully acted as a ‘peacemaker’ between Jafari and Ahmadinejad.  Source added that the break in the [Supreme National Security Council] meeting, but not the slap that caused it, has made its way on to some Iranian blogs.” 

Along with other weaknesses in the plausibility of this story, we have to ask—how would a “former non-Marxist revolutionary activist” have anything like the level of access to make him an even marginally credible source for a story like the one recounted in the Iran watcher’s cable?   

6)              Again, we should give credit where credit is due.  One Iran watcher—in Dubai—wrote in a January 2010 cable that “at this point, the Green Path Opposition is more of a persistent problem for the regime than an existential threat, and it is unrealistic to assume that the GPO will be able to effect any ‘regime change’ in the short-term.  This officer systematically laid out why the Green Movement was in no way comparable to the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1978-1979. 

But this officer also blithely asserted around the same time that, “While we don’t know nor might not ever know the real June 12 vote count, it is clear that the turnout was at record high levels and that there was systematic vote count fraud (if in fact the votes were even counted) to ensure that Ahmadinejad ‘won big’ in the first round.”  There is no sourcing of any sort for these statements.  Also note the nearly complete lack of specification as to how the “fix” was done.  It might have been “systematic vote count fraud”; we assume that means actually altering or replacing ballots in order to produce a desired result.  But, perhaps the votes weren’t even counted. 

Someone who charges fraud in a foreign country’s election—particularly a State Department officer reporting to Washington in an official cable—ought to be able to explain how the alleged fraud took place.  But, we have seen what happens when reporting officers are relying primarily on sources with overriding political and personal agendas regarding an issue of high importance for American foreign policy.   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Two Iranian scientists have been killed this year and another wounded in brazen attacks in broad daylight on the streets of Tehran.  The first of these attacks, in January, targeted Massoud Ali-Mohammadi who was killed by a remote-controlled bomb rigged to a motorcycle.  Several of America’s more prominent Iran watchers immediately concluded that “agents of the Iranian government must be considered the prime suspects in this killing…[because]…they amplify their campaign of intimidation against the Green opposition.”  This had to be the case, we were told, because the victim had signed a pro-Mousavi petition.  Moreover, he was killed by a bomb from a motorcycle and “the very word motorcycle is indelibly associated with the thugs of the paramilitary basij, a wing of the Revolutionary Guards, who ride them into battle against protesters on the streets of Tehran the way the forces of Genghis Khan charged into their foes on the steppes of Central Asia” (sic). 

Those who charged that the Iranian government had killed one its highly regarded scientists never explained why that scientist was killed, but not millions of other Mousavi supporters, some of whom continue to work in very sensitive areas.  If the Iranian government wanted to eliminate one of its nuclear scientists because of his alleged support for Mousavi, it could have done that and further tarnished Mousavi’s image at the same time by charging the scientist with espionage (a capital crime). 

Two other scientists were targeted earlier this month, one fatally, by bombs attached to their cars by motorcycle-riding assassins.  Iranian government officials have charged that these attacks were organized by foreign intelligence services—a charge that has been derisively pilloried by many Western commentators.  After today’s P5+1 meeting in Geneva, Saeed Jalili, Secretary General of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council addressed reporters beside a gold-framed, black-ribboned portrait of the Iranian nuclear scientist murdered in Tehran earlier this month.  Jalili blamed the targeting of one of Iran’s scientists for murder on his designation, by name, in the United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions against Iran.

In this context, the Wikileaks documents reveal that, earlier this year, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv reported the following to Washington in an unclassified cable:  

“In November 2008, Israeli crime boss Yaakov Alperon was assassinated in broad daylight in a gruesome attack on the streets of Tel Aviv, only about a mile away from the Embassy. According to several media accounts, a motor scooter pulled up alongside Alperon’s car and the rider attached a sophisticated explosive device with a remote detonator to the car door.  The bomb killed Alperon and his driver, andinjured two innocent pedestrians.  The hit was the latest in a series of violent attacks and reprisals, and indicated a widening crime war in Israel.”

Compare that to the following description of how the two Iranian nuclear scientists were targeted this month:

 “Tehran Police Chief Brigadier General Hossein Sajedinia said a motorcycle approached Shahriari’s [the assassinated scientist] car and attached a bomb to the car which exploded a few seconds later. He added that in a separate incident terrorists this time attached another bomb to Abbasi’s car and escaped.”

We do not know who organized the attacks against the three Iranian nuclear scientists targeted this year.  But the facilely confident rush to blame the Iranian government for the first attack underscores how badly the fact-free analysis of the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election infected American discourse about Iran—just as fact-free intelligence about Saddam Husyan’s weapons of mass destruction infected American discourse about the Iraqi “threat.”   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett