In his blog today at The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg published a piece, “Hillary Mann Leverett: From Iran Critic to Iran Apologist”, in which he notes discontinuities between some of the pieces that I wrote on Iran in the 1990s, when I was the first Terrorism Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the views on Iran and U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic that I espouse today. He concludes that these discontinuities demonstrate I have “lost [my] bearings”.
It seems inappropriate for Mr. Goldberg—who has never spoken with me—to offer any assessment of my “bearings”. More substantively, though, there is a simpler and more 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 negotiating 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. In this regard, recent statements by Kenneth Timmerman on C-Span’s Washington Journal that my husband, Flynt Leverett, and I have been spreading “lies” about Iran’s substantial cooperation with post-9/11 American efforts in Afghanistan are beneath contempt. Mr. Timmerman was not in government, and does not know what he is talking about. I was one of very few U.S. officials authorized to deal directly with Iranian officials regarding Afghanistan–Timmerman’s neoconservative friends at the Pentagon were deliberately kept out of those discussions–and I saw what the Iranians did to help us in Afghanistan.
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. These ties are taken at the Washington Institute and many other venues in Washington as confirmation of the Islamic Republic’s irredeemably aggressive and malign ambitions. But proxy actors in various regional settings—political, paramilitary, and terrorist—are a critical element in Iran’s “asymmetric” national security strategy. This strategy aims to generate security for the Islamic Republic, even though it lacks serious conventional military capabilities, powerful strategic allies, and significant strategic depth. In this context, ties to proxy actors in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, etc. give Tehran tools to ensure that those states will not be used as anti-Iranian platforms, providing the Islamic Republic an effective measure of strategic depth it would not otherwise have. This element of Iran’s national security strategy encompasses not only groups identified by Washington as terrorist organizations—e.g., Hizballah and HAMAS—but also Iraqi and Afghan political parties and their associated militias.
As a result of my experience dealing with the Iranians over Afghanistan, I also came to appreciate how profoundly warped is much of the discussion in the United States about alleged Iranian ties to Al-Qa’ida. Senior George W. Bush Administration officials and the neoconservative commentariat of the day initially provided grist for this mill in much the same way that they manufactured an alleged connection between Saddam Husayn’s Iraq and Al-Qa’ida. But, in fact, after the invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran detained hundreds of suspected Al-Qa’ida operatives attempting to flee across Iran’s border; these detentions were fully documented to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and passed on to the State Department at the time. Iran repatriated at least 200 of these individuals to the new Karzai government in Afghanistan, to Saudi Arabia, and to other countries. But Iran could not return all of its detainees—for example, Iranian diplomats told my colleagues and me that, because the Islamic Republic has no diplomatic relations with Egypt, Tehran was not able to repatriate Egyptian Al-Qa’ida members. Likewise, Iranian officials told us that, since Saudi Arabia had stripped Osama bin Laden of his Saudi citizenship, they did not believe the Kingdom would repatriate any of the Al-Qa’ida leader’s progeny. (This issue is still being negotiated by Iranian and Saudi diplomats today.)
My current views on U.S. policy reflect, I believe, thatI have learned from professional experience and am capable of adapting my policy views in light of a more accurate understanding of reality. I would hope that Mr. Goldberg—who, in 2002, was peddling what turned out to be utterly inaccurate reports about Saddam Husayn’s ties to Al-Qa’ida and his possession of weapons of mass destruction—is able to do the same.
–Hillary Mann Leverett