Jeffrey Goldberg has written yet another post about me, “Bad News for Hillary Leverett”, on his blog at the Atlantic. The piece opens with a link to a recent piece by Jay Solomon in The Wall Street Journal, reporting that the Obama Administration is increasingly questioning the long-term stability of the Islamic Republic and is exploring ways to use new sanctions against Iran to support its opposition. My husband and I have already blogged about that article, the post can be found here. Mr. Goldberg also provides an extended quote from a piece in The New Republic by Abbas Milani, which describes an Op Ed that my husband and I published in The New York Times on January 6 as the “most infuriating” Op Ed of the New Year. We will be responding to Prof. Milani’s article at another time, I would simply note here that, if one looks at the substance of the various gestures toward “engagement” with Tehran made by the Obama Administration, none of them constitutes a serious, strategically-grounded initiative. But, again, that is an argument for another day.
However, I do want to respond to several points made by Mr. Goldberg—the presumptive “bad news” about me—because they are, quite simply, at odds with the relevant facts. First, Mr. Goldberg asserts, with no documentation, that Ambassador Ryan Crocker (and, Ryan, congratulations on your appointment as the new Dean of Texas A&M’s George H.W. Bush School), with whom I conducted almost two years of regular negotiations with Iranian officials about Afghanistan, “does not have the same rosy memories of these negotiations that she does”.
Let’s review the public record. In an extended essay that Ryan published with Christopher Dickey in Newsweek last year, he described our discussions with Iranian counterparts as going on for “hours”, noting that sometimes “we watched the sunrise” toward the end of our sessions. (On this point, the State Department’s own website states that “US and Iranian envoys cooperated in operations against the Taliban in 2001”.) In the Newsweek article, Ryan notes further that, in our discussions with the Iranians, the disposition of “Al Qa’ida fugitives that they had picked up” was “on the table”. (Ryan adds that, when he first went to Kabul after the Taliban’s overthrow, Iranian diplomats on the ground were “eager to work with us and the new government of Hamid Karzai”.) Finally, Ryan notes that our cooperation with the Iranians over Afghanistan “continued”, even after President Bush’s January 2002 “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address, “until May 2003”.
All of these points are consistent with my account and assessment of our negotiations with the Iranians. In my own account, I have provided more detail about the substance of our negotiations with the Iranians during 2001-2003. In my assessment of Iran’s foreign policy and national security strategies both during those negotiations and more broadly, I have also benefited from my continuing contacts with Iranian officials (including those in the current administration) and analysts from 2003 until the present day. But, for Mr. Goldberg to say that Ryan’s account of the 2001-2003 period is at odds with mine is, simply and clearly, false. And, I would note that Ryan is not the only former senior U.S. diplomat in service at the time who has publicly noted the extent of Iranian cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan during 2001-2003, going well beyond the immediate overthrow of the Taliban: James Dobbins, the State Department’s special envoy for Afghanistan, has done so repeatedly, and both Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke about it publicly. Surely these are relevant facts that any responsible journalist would take account of.
I suspect these facts won’t matter to Mr. Goldberg, because, in his post, he goes on to write that “in any case, the conditions that pertained at the time no longer exist”. Mr. Goldberg asserts, again with no documentation, that some of the Iranian officials who negotiated with us “have been purged from the system and face imprisonment”. This is incorrect. There were three Iranian officials who conducted the negotiations with Ryan and me from 2001 until May 2003. They are career diplomats who have served across several different Iranian presidential administrations; they all continue to serve now in senior positions in the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The Iranian Foreign Minister at the time, Kamal Kharrazi, to whom these officials reported directly, now serves as a foreign policy adviser to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Another Iranian diplomat, who joined the negotiations in 2003 shortly before the Bush Administration cut off cooperation with Iran, does not now serve in an official position. There have been rumors that he has been sidelined because of speculation about his continued support for former President Khatami, but, to the best of my knowledge, he does not face criminal charges of any sort. (It is true that some Iranian officials who participated in nuclear negotiations with European representatives during 2003-2005 faced legal difficulties, but these difficulties arose years before the political controversy in Iran sparked by the June 2009 presidential election and the individuals involved are different from those who negotiated with Ryan and me. Again, Mr. Goldberg gets basic facts wrong.)
More broadly, Mr. Goldberg asserts that there is “little in the historical record to suggest that the Iranian regime wanted better relations” with the United States, and, to the extent they negotiated at all, it was motivated by fear: “the Iran of early 2003 was scared witless by George W. Bush”. But Iranian cooperation over Afghanistan came in 2001 and 2002, well before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March of 2003. To return to Ryan Crocker’s Newsweek article, he notes that, in 2001 and 2002, the Iranians were remarkably comfortable with the insertion of a large contingent of U.S. military forces into Afghanistan, one of the Islamic Republic’s neighbors. So, even if the Iranians got scared by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, that does not explain their cooperation in 2001 and 2002; Goldberg’s charge does not make sense.
Regarding the “historical record”, I have written extensively, both individually and with my husband, documenting the 20-year record of Iranian attempts to cooperate with the United States on particular issues—freeing hostages in Lebanon, providing weapons to Bosnian Muslims, getting rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan and fighting Al Qa’ida—with the aim of sparking a broader improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations. (much of this writing is available under the articles tabs for Flynt and me in The Authors box on this site). In each episode, it is the U.S. administration in office at the time that has “pulled the plug” on U.S.-Iranian cooperation. And, even if Iranian cooperation with the United States in 2001 and 2002 was motivated to some degree by fear that the Islamic Republic would become the next target in the Bush Administration’s “war on terror”, that does not obviate the strategic consensus underlying Iran’s 20-year interest in improving relations with the United States—an interest that has carried across the presidencies of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammed Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That Iran is not willing to surrender preemptively on every difference it has with the United States does not make this interest any less real.
All in all, Mr. Goldberg’s post about me is a sorry exercise in “journalism”. He was colossally wrong about key issues in the run up to the Iraq war in 2003—surely one of the biggest stories in his career as a journalist focused on the Middle East. His continued refusal to take account of and deal with the full range of relevant facts when he is writing about me leads me to the sad conclusion that he is professionally incompetent.
–Hillary Mann Leverett