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The Race for Iran


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



  1. Jon Harrison says:

    Alan, I meant promising if the U.S. had actually tried engagement during that time. I believe overtures from the U.S. could have borne fruit. It goes without saying that we didn’t really try, i.e., the U.S. government wasn’t interested. But had we been interested between ’97 and ’05, the Iranian side (in my opinion) would have responded. That is what I meant by “promising.”

  2. Anthony says:

    What you say Hillary is correct. However all the opportunity to mend relations with Iran is now lost because the very people who wanted this relationship have next to zero influence these days. Is it our fault that Iran is in this mess? Not completely but maybe some of it is.

  3. I would advise staying classy, the last paragraph was uncalled for. You will quickly scale your own learning curve if you invite flame wars with the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg.

  4. Alan says:

    WigWag – I have just re-read the James Robbins piece and it’s everything I thought it was the first time, with the possible exception that his position is perhaps more the strait-laced international diplomat sticking to the party line than one of any particular ideological persuasion.

    Primarily though, his involvement on this blog was to counter Goldberg’s claims that no senior diplomat had a positive experience dealing with Iranians. His experience was overwhelmingly positive, and the picture he paints of the Iranians is one of friendliness, humour and constructiveness, with a consistent determination to protect their interests.

    Hopefully these latest signs of a deal will render the debate academic anyway.

  5. WigWag says:

    Have you read the Dobbins piece, Alan. He’s all for negotiations but he concedes that they are unlikely to accomplish anything. He says that Iran’s only motivation (other than their delight that the U.S. destoryed their two most hated opponents) is that Iran was afraid the United States would invade. Despite this, Mann-Leverett cites him as agreeing with her position.

    He doesn’t. In fact, if you read his essay, it’s clear that he agrees with Goldberg at least as much as he agrees with Mann-Leverett.

  6. Alan says:

    Jon Harrison – how exactly was it promising in the 1997-2005 period? There were no overtures from the US of any consequence; the US maintained unilateral sanctions, continually sought to obstruct the Iranian nuclear program, and then responded in crisis mode when the program was revealed in 2002, bringing forth the “Axis of Evil”.

    Enrichment activities restarted in 2005-06, but the Iranians had maintained this would happen since before Ahmadinejad was elected, and attempts by the EU3 to broker a deal in 2006 were stymied by the US passing new unilateral sanctions and refusing to consider talks unless enrichment was re-suspended.

    It was the Iranians who came up with the offer of a fuel swap deal in mid-2009, and Ahmadinejad who infuriated the reformists by offering to do it so softly in September.

    The Iranians have been up for a deal for years. According to Mohammed El Baradei at the IAEA, half the time they’re arguing amongst themselves over who is going to get the credit for pulling one off.

  7. mithra says:

    Now Leverette have to respond to Abbas Milani and Mohammad Sahimi and Patrick Disney. I know this comment is not going to be published, which only discredits this site further.

    Letter from a Tehran Jail
    A response to Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett


  8. Jon Harrison says:

    It’s certainly correct that the period 1997-2005 was more promising for the development of U.S.-Iranian engagement. However, to say it’s impossible now, or not worth trying, is a counsel of despair. Engagement should be pursued.

  9. Alan says:

    WigWag, give it a rest mate. The simple point is that Dobbins supports engagement with Iran. The fact that he speaks from both direct experience and a different ideological position only serves to strengthen the case. It also nails Goldberg.

    The point that the Iranians only talk when they’re scared is nonsense. Iran has been the biggest winner, by a country mile, out of the US invasion of Iraq. Not only has it removed an enemy and greatly increased their regional influence, their trade with Iraq is now $5bn a year and growing rapidly where before it was precisely 0. It’s going to take a lot of sanctions for the US to get back to the starting post, let alone penalise them.

    Furthermore, Iranian overtures to the West didn’t stop in 2003. They went on through 2004, 2005 and 2006. The only reason they stopped then was because of US preconditions to talks. Even so, they continued their co-operation with the IAEA, resolving all outstanding issues of the IAEA workplan in February 2008. Unfortunately, as soon as they did so, the IAEA “discovered” a few more. Rotten luck, huh?

    The US has been consistently outmanoeuvred by the Iranians for years. They wouldn’t have been had they chosen engagement and elected to pursue common interests together. To be sure, there would be many areas where those interests diverge, but that’s where dialogue mitigates any issues that may arise. There can be no doubt that Iran would be an exceptionally useful strategic partner, but the US may well have to accept that they will be just one partner, and not the pre-eminent one.

  10. Samuel says:

    As Prof. Juan Cole aptly put it a few days ago: Goldberg is an “American Likudnik”.

  11. mithra says:

    With friends like Leverettes Iranians don’t need enemies.

  12. Nader Hobballah says:

    I got your next title: Explaining the concept of “reality” to Jeffrey Goldberg.

  13. WigWag says:

    Anyone who reads their posts regularly knows that Hillary Mann-Leverett and Flynt Leverett make a habit of emphasizing the facts that support their basic premise while ignoring the facts that detract from their theory that forging a grand deal with Iran is the way to go. We all do that sometimes, but if there was a Nobel Prize given for obfuscation the Leveretts would surely share the award.

    Mann-Leverett says,

    “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…”

    But James Dobbins has a piece out in the January, 2010 issue of the Washington Quarterly where he contradicts Ms Mann-Leverett on numerous points.

    Ms Mann-Leverett claims that there is ample historical evidence for Iran seeking to cooperate with the United States but she is unable to cite any examples beyond their desire to cooperate to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and then a desire to tone down tensions right after the invasion of Iraq. Of course Iran wanted American help to topple the Taliban. The Taliban and Al Qaeda consider the Shia to be apostates worthy of death; they consider the Iranian regime to be an abomination and an offense against Allah. The United States had just experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history; the attack was planned in Afghanistan. Suggesting that because the Iranians and Americans sought to cooperate to destroy their most hated mutual enemy, this serves as a precedent for how Iran and the United States might cooperate in other areas where their interests don’t coincide is wrong-headed (one might almost say that it is evidence of having lost your bearings.) And of course Ms Mann-Leverett is unable to refute Goldberg’s assertion that the only reason Iran wanted to forge a deal with the United States after the invasion of Iraq is that they feared they were next.

    By the way, Dobbins sees no great precedent for cooperative ventures between Iran and the United States; this is what he says,

    “As the United States conducts bilateral and multiparty negotiations with Iran, it is worth recalling the last, and perhaps only, occasion when the U.S. and revolutionary Iranian governments cooperated closely and effectively. It was almost eight years ago, immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks.”

    In his article Dobbins makes the point that Mann-Leverett plainly disagrees with; the Iranian diplomats he met with were accountable to a reformist regime led by President Khatami who was wildly popular with that segment of the population that morphed into today’s “Green Movement.” To claim that the same people are running Iran today is simply not true.

    Dobbins also makes the point that at the time they were negotiating, Iran could claim to be one of the most democratic regimes in the Muslim world; certainly more legitimate than the Egyptian or Saudi governments. Whatever the Leveretts may think of the legitimacy of the current regime, one thing is clear; millions of Iranians think the current Iranian regime is illegitimate.

    Like Mann-Leverett, Dobbins believes that the Bush Administration missed a major opportunity to forge a rapproachment with Iran but unlike Ms Mann-Leverett, Dobbins thinks that opportunity has probably now passed; this is what he says,

    “President Barack Obama holds a much weaker hand in dealing with Iran than did his predecessor in 2001 or 2003…Obama can not, therefore, pick up the dialogue with Tehran where it was left in 2003. Nevertheless, the experience of cooperation over Afghanistan, and incipient cooperation over Iraq, remains relevant, a reminder of what was once possible and could be again.”

    Dobbins also explains why the Iranians were so interested in engaging the United States in those days,

    “The Iranian leadership was both thankful and fearful thankful that the United States had eliminated its two most dangerous regional rivals, and fearful that their own regime would be next.”

    Of course, this is exactly the point that Goldberg made when he attributed Iran’s interest in negotiating after the Iraq war started to the regime’s fear that it would also be invaded by the United States. This motivation for engagement no longer exists and the Leveretts oppose incentivizing the Iranians by threatening regime change.

    There are numerous other differences between what Dobbins says and what the Leveretts say. Here are just a few:

    1) The Leveretts are convinced the regime is legitimate and that the election was not stolen; Dobbins says no such thing.

    2) The Leveretts believe that the Green Revolution has no chance for success; Dobbins is agnostic on that.

    3) The Leveretts are convinced that sanctions are destined to fail; Dobbins is skeptical that they will work but doesn’t suggest that they aren’t worth a try.

    4) The Leveretts don’t think Obama has genuinely reached out to the Iranians. In his essay, Dobbins sites chapter and verse on how the Obama Administration has reached out to the Iranians only to be rebuffed.

    At the end of his essay, Dobbins essentially damns the approach that Mann-Leverett, Leverett and Katcher advocate. Here’s what Dobbins says,

    “For thirty years, Washington and Tehran have communicated only intermittently and then usually at low levels. Given the distrust and misunderstanding that have built up on both sides, it would be remarkable if the recent reestablishment of higher level contact led to early breakthroughs. Yet, while engagement may not always produce accommodation, but it always yields information, which helps to create better policy. Thus, even failed negotiations are better than no negotiation at all.”

    Dobbins seems certain that engagement is almost destined to fail at least in the timeframe necessary for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Leverett and Mann-Leverett think the opposite.

    It is remarkable that Mann-Leverett mentions Dobbins as someone who can be used to refute the points made by Goldberg. Dobbins disagrees with Mann-Leverett (and Leverett) on a far greater number of issues than he agrees with them.

    Hasn’t Mann-Leverett read his article?

    One other point should be made; Mann-Leverehtt attempts to rebut Goldberg’s point that Ambassador Crocker had a less rosy feeling about the engagement with Iran then she had. She criticizes Goldberg for offering no evidence to back up his contention of what Crocker thought.

    What’s the best evidence she can offer about what Crocker thought?

    A Newsweek article where Crocker says “our discussions with Iranian counterparts went on for hours…sometimes “we watched the sunrise toward the end of our sessions.”

    Who could ask for stronger evidence than that?

  14. Jon Harrison says:

    Well said, Ms. Mann Leverett. Goldberg is a propagandist, nothing more. I would say he’s prejudiced (not corrupt), and that is why he’s incompetent.

    F.L. did well on World Focus tonight.

  15. Pirouz says:

    “leads me to the sad conclusion that he is professionally incompetent.”

    Or he’s prejudiced. Or even corrupt. Maybe both.