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.
We will start by quoting the paragraphs from Mr. Smith’s article which Mr. Goldberg reprints in his post:
“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.”
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.
To return to the passages quoted by Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Smith’s claim that Flynt was “offended” when Smith asked if the Revolutionary Guard had played a role in our invitation from the University of Tehran is not accurate. What Mr. Smith asked Flynt—and we quote from the email in which he asked it—was “to check information I have from two sources that your trip was facilitated via Muhammad Marandi on behalf of the IRGC”. What offended Flynt was Smith’s claim that he had two sources telling him this nonsense. There was no way that other human beings to whom Smith would have access could have been telling him this except that they made it up; alternatively, Smith himself made up his two “sources”. Under either scenario, Smith is peddling lies.
Regarding our “collaboration” with Mohammad Marandi—a professor of literature who, indeed, directs the University of Tehran’s Institute for North American Studies—we have written one article with him. We remain quite proud of this article, which we believe should be viewed now and will be viewed in retrospect as one of the seminal pieces of fact-based analysis of Iranian politics in the wake of the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election. We think that Mohammad’s analyses of Iranian politics and U.S.-Iranian relations are informed, interesting, and important. We count him among our Iranian friends (we have friends across the political spectrum in Iran.) It is execrable that Mr. Smith would print an unsubstantiated assertion that Mohammad is working for Iran’s Intelligence Ministry; Mr. Smith clearly did so with the sole aim of demeaning Mohammad. We certainly have no reason to believe that Mohammad is anything other than what he says he is. The statement by Dr. Ahmadi—a well-known expatriate advocate of regime change in Iran—that Mohammad is working for the Iranian Intelligence Ministry is completely unsourced. Unless Dr. Ahmadi has his own employment relationship with Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, he would have no basis for knowing whether Mohammad or anyone else was on the Ministry’s payroll. We hope that Mr. Smith misquoted Dr. Ahmadi. But, we are learning that a disappointingly high percentage of those who want to apply the Iraq model of regime change to Iran seem to think that there is nothing wrong with lying in order to discredit their opponents.
We also can’t resist responding to Mr. Smith’s references to Mohammad’s father, because they show so well how utterly disinterested Mr. Smith—and Mr. Goldberg—are in basic, factual truth. There is a clear implication in Mr. Smith’s “article” that, because Alireza Marandi is Khamenei’s “personal physician”, then his son Mohammad’s integrity must be suspect. Now, we have never met Dr. Marandi. However, the claim that he is Khamenei’s “personal physician” seems strange given that Dr. Marandi is known both in Iran and the United States as a highly regarded pediatrician, specializing in neonatology—the care of premature infants and other newborns. (Surely, Ayatollah Khamenei can find a competent internist somewhere in Iran). Dr. Marandi—who lived for several years in the United States before returning to Iran after the 1979 revolution—did serve as health minister under then-Prime Minister Mousavi and then-President Rafsanjani. He is widely known for his careful promotion of birth control in Iran, which has helped to lower the country’s historically very high rate of population growth (during his tenure as health minister, Iran allowed the U.S.-based Population Council to operate there). Even The New York Times reported on Dr. Marandi’s leadership in this area. (Did Mr. Smith even bother with a Google search on Dr. Marandi? Are Messrs. Smith and Goldberg interested in and capable of accessing even the most basic factual data about their subjects?) Since leaving his post as health minister, Dr. Marandi has also been one of Iran’s leading advocates of breast feeding. If we actually get to go to Iran, we would look forward to meeting Dr. Marandi, as well as seeing his son again.
The portions of Mr. Smith’s “article” that are not directly quoted by Mr. Goldberg contain an even higher concentration of lies and basic factual errors. Frankly, we do not want to take the time to correct every single one of them. However, we do want to address two that are particularly relevant to discussions of U.S. policy toward Iran. One of Mr. Smith’s bigger lies is that we fabricated the “legend” that Iran sent in a “grand bargain” offer through Swiss intermediaries and peddled this false story to boost our standing as Iran experts. This claim is dishonest on at least three levels.
- First, there is the question of physical reality—there was, indeed, a document from the Iranians that came to the State Department via the Swiss (Switzerland is the “protecting power” for the United States in Tehran, where there is no U.S. diplomatic representation). That document was reported on by Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post in 2007 (link is here). The link to a pdf of the document that the Post also published along with the story appears not to be easily accessible anymore from the Post’s website. However, it can be accessed on Steve Clemons blog, The Washington Note, from a post that Steve wrote on the Glenn Kessler story (link here)–go to the part where Steve writes, “Here is a PDF of the actual “Roadmap” faxed by Guldimann”). The document captured in that PDF is the document we read at the State Department after it had been sent in by the Swiss. Now, of course, one may argue that the document would not have been a good basis for U.S.-Iranian negotiations (we obviously disagree with those arguments), but the document exists. That Mr. Smith claims to have found an (anonymous) NSC staffer who was at the White House after we left and who says he never saw this document does not alter the reality of the document’s existence. (We know for a fact that the document was sent from the State Department to the NSC. What happened to it after that we cannot address, as we were no longer working at the White House at that time.)
- Second, Mr. Smith is not telling the truth when he claims that we lied about the document coming from the Iranians, since, in his parallel universe, the document—which, you will remember, never existed in the first place, according to Mr. Smith—was really written by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran at the time. The Swiss ambassador’s cover letter that came in with the Iranian document—and which you can read yourself as part of the PDF referenced above–about how he received the document from the Iranian side couldn’t be clearer. Maybe one doesn’t want to believe him, or one thinks he was duped. But there is no way to say that the document was a substantive (if not a physical) fabrication without having tested the basic proposition that the text was sent to the United States by the Iranians as a basis for negotiations. And that, in fact, is something the Bush Administration declined to do—as Secretary Powell, Richard Haass, and other senior Bush Administration officials have publicly confirmed.
- Third, it is not true that, as Mr. Smith alleges, the Iranian document was shot down by our purported “allies”, Secretary Powell and Deputy Secretary Armitage, and not by neoconservatves. Powell’s own Chief of Staff at the time, Larry Wilkerson, told the BBC that Powell and others at the State Department thought “it was a very propitious moment” to respond to the Iranian offer. “But as soon as it got to the White House, and as soon as it got to the Vice-President’s office, the old mantra of ‘We don’t talk to evil’… reasserted itself.“
Another of Mr. Smith’s canards that is categorically false is that Flynt was fired from the National Security Council because “his desk was notoriously messy” and for other administrative deficiencies. Three months before Flynt left the NSC, the White House publicly announced that it was promoting him, from acting senior director for Middle East affairs to senior director. (Shortly before this, Flynt’s home agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, from which he was seconded to the NSC staff, promoted him to the Senior Intelligence Service, the equivalent of promotion to general-grade rank in the uniformed military.) Flynt’s desk was messy when he was promoted to SIS rank. His desk was messy when then-national security adviser Condoleeza Rice promoted him to full-fledged senior director status. Why would she have promoted Flynt after he had been at the NSC for almost a year, only to decide a few weeks later that his desk was unacceptably messy and his work of unacceptably poor quality?
No one disputes the facts that Flynt was strongly critical of the direction of the Bush Administration’s policies on a number of Middle East issues, and concluded, in the end, that he could not stay on at the NSC to promote these policies. Mr. Smith may have found a neoconservative alumnus of the Bush NSC or Secretary Rumsfeld’s staff who continues to be in denial about the serious policy debates at the time, and wants to dismiss Flynt’s critique of the Bush Administration’s policies by telling stories about a messy desk. (The Tablet does not disclose that Mr. Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, where his colleagues include Doug Feith—the former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy who, in the run up to the Iraq war, peddled false (indeed, fabricated) information about an alleged but nonexistent relationship between Saddam Husayn and Al-Qa’ida—and Norman Podhoretz, one of the founding fathers of the “Bomb Iran” movement.)
Mr. Smith’s “article” is nothing but a gossip column meant to undermine a genuine debate in the United States about what is in America’s interests in the Middle East and how best to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mr. Smith asserts at the end of his “article” that we have become “instruments through which the [Iranian] regime might influence Washington”. That statement is categorically untrue and nothing more than a blatant attempt at character assassination.
This kind of McCarthyite tactic was used by Mr. Goldberg, among others, in the run up to the Iraq war, in a largely successful effort to ensure that there was no serious questioning of the lies about Iraqi WMD and links to Al Qaida that Mr. Goldberg, among others, worked hard to disseminate. We will continue to do our best to ensure that Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Smith, and others like them do not get away with such profound and dangerous dishonesty this time around.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett