Saturday, July 7, 2018

Going to Tehran by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

I know next to nothing about Iran specifically and about the Middle East more generally. I believe that I’m not alone among Americans on this score; that many Americans, in fact, are as uninformed about the culture, politics, and ambitions of the Middle Eastern states as I am. Addressing this ignorance was my primary motivation in picking up this volume. And it’s probably fair for me to admit that I was attracted by the provocativeness of its title and subtitle.

“Going to Tehran” is a intentional parallel reference to Nixon’s famous trip to Beijing in 1972, where he sought to construct a new and less antagonist relationship for the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The authors of Going to Tehran are advocates for something similar with regard to Iran, as exemplified by their subtitle “Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Although I’m going to reserve judgment on the book’s main recommendation, it’s safe to say I learned a lot by reading this book.

A Charged Issue

Truth be told, the nature of the relationship between the United States and Iran is a politically charged issue. Strong voices with significant political power stand in stark opposition to any softening of relations between the two countries, and speaking out in favor of that softening has real consequences in the real world. The Leveretts, in fact, break editorial convention by speaking in their own voices to address the specifics of this issue.

Speaking personally, the two of us, like the China hands, have no political agenda -- other than presenting the most objective analysis of Iranian politics, Iranian foreign policy, and American-Iranian relations that we possibly can and drawing from that analysis the correct prescription for American foreign policy. As we have tried to tell the truth about important but vehemently politicized issues of American policy towards the Islamic Republic, we, too, have experienced sharp backlash from elements in the American body politic opposed to a more rational and constructive Iran policy. The George W. Bush administration censored an op-ed we wrote in December 2006 that documented Iranian cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan; the New York Times published it with the redacted passages blacked out because we demonstrated to the newspaper that all of the material that the White House excised was publicly available elsewhere, a fact that clearly suggested that the Bush administration was out to silence us for political reasons. We know what it means to have to leave careers in government service because of unpopular analytic and policy views and -- in Flynt’s case -- to be forced out of a prominent Washington think tank because of those views. By 2010, we had become such a lightning rod in the Iran debate that, according to the Economist, much of it was about “what we should think of Hillary and Flynt Leverett.” With the experience of the China hands in mind, we take these criticisms as confirmation that we are looking at reality straight on.

Despite the backlash, I find their words about the true nature of U.S. Iranian policy to have persuasive power. The mention above to Iranian cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan is one of several counterfactuals presented by the Leveretts in this book that serve to undercut the standard narrative that Iran is a nation led by crazy people irrevocably opposed to the United States.

Iran Is an Islamic Republic

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is learning more about Iran’s actual form of government. It is a democratic republic, with a constitution, an elected “Congress,” and independent courts. It is like the United States in many ways, with one very important distinction.

Alongside these institutions and offices, which seem familiar to Westerners, the constitution creates another set, which Westerners find more bewildering (and, in many cases, off-putting). These reflect the clerical dimensions of [First Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khomeini’s political thought, culminating in velayat-e faqih [clerical guardianship]. In keeping with the Imam’s advocacy of a supervisory council of mujtahids, the constitution creates the Council of Guardians, with a mandate “to protect the ordinances of Islam and the constitution by assuring that legislation passed by the Majles [the Iranian “Congress”] does not conflict with them” -- meaning that the guardians are there not just to protect Shari’a but also (like the U.S. Supreme Court) to protect the constitution itself.

How is this Council of Guardians constructed?

The council has twelve members, including “six just fuqaha [jurists schooled in the philosophy and theory of Islamic law], conscious of current needs and the issues of the day,” selected by the supreme leader, and six other jurists, “specializing in different areas of the law, to be elected by the Majles from among the Muslim jurists presented to it” by the leadership of the judiciary.

And what responsibilities does it have?

The council reviews “all legislation passed by the Majles” for “compatibility with the criteria of Islam and the constitution.” It also supervises national elections; this responsibility includes the vetting of potential candidates by evaluating their faithfulness to Islam and their loyalty to the Islamic Republic.

Now, all of that sounds foreign to Americans, and it probably sounds dangerous to many of them. What about the rights of the people? The Leveretts provide what I think is an interesting perspective.

To Westerners, Iranians seem remarkably tolerant of the Guardian Council’s role in their elections. Through a liberal lens, the council appears to be an unelected body engaged in the arbitrary exclusion of potential candidates from electoral contests. But that is not necessarily how Iranians see it. Every political system, a number of our Iranian interlocutors point out, has some way to vet aspirants for high office. The United States has its primary system, in which the principal criterion for moving forward has become the ability to raise money. In the United States and some European countries, parties also filter candidates, placing informal but real ideological restrictions on them. In Turkey, candidates must demonstrate their loyalty to the strictly secular constitutional order; even today, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, cannot display its Islamic inclinations too overtly without risking disqualification from political activity by Turkish courts, backed by the military. In postrevolutionary Iran, the winnowing is done through the Guardian Council’s evaluation of aspirants according to criteria laid out in the constitution, including support for “the Islamic character of the political system,” endorsement of “all the rules and regulations according to Islamic criteria,” recognition of Shi’a Islam as “the official religion of Iran,” and acceptance of several accompanying principles -- the “democratic character of the government,” the doctrine of “the imamate of the umma” -- as “unalterable.” Political competition is limited to those who accept these parameters. But Iranians say such adherence is required in any genuinely constitutional order -- including the United States, where every president, senator, and congressional representative must swear to defend the U.S. Constitution before taking office.

The point is well taken. Every society must have a way of ensuring that its leaders come from inside, not outside, its foundational rules. And indeed, when the Leveretts report that in their 2005 election more than a thousand Iranians registered to run as presidential candidates, and that the Guardian Council approved only eight of them for the first-round ballot, I felt like offering the tongue-in-cheek comment that perhaps something similar should have been put in place during the 2016 Republican primaries.

But the larger point is, I think, that Iran has its own system of government, and it is one that is widely accepted by the vast majority of its citizens. It is not the American system, but Iran is not the United States, and just as it has a distinct system of government, it also has a distinct foreign policy.

Iran Is Pro-Iran, Not Anti-United States

And that foreign policy, summarized by its original Supreme Leader as “neither East or West,” has much less to do with hostility towards the United States (or any other nation) and much more to do with establishing itself as an independent and regional power in the Middle East. This is one of the book’s big ideas, something absolutely essential for the reader to get his head around if he is going to understand the Leveretts’s argument.

But they seem to know that they might be swimming upstream on this one.

The proposition that the Islamic Republic is implacably and unreasoningly hostile to the United States is, of course, a staple of neoconservatism. A related argument -- that the Iranian government is too dependent on anti-Americanism for its domestic legitimacy ever to contemplate improved relations with the United States -- is peddled by more mainstream analysts. In both versions, this conviction that the Islamic Republic is inalterably antagonistic strongly, and wrongly, conditions Western discourse about Iran, prompting the belief that when Iran does negotiate with the United States, it does so only to buy time, not to work toward a resolution of differences.

Yet, despite this view, it seems to be a fact that Iran has legitimately sought rapprochement with the United States since its very founding.

Since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has viewed the United States as by far the leading threat to its political and territorial integrity. At the same time, decision makers in Tehran have recognized that Iran has basic national security and foreign policy needs that can only be met -- or at any rate only optimally met -- through rapprochement with Washington. Since the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian policy makers have also understood that improved relations would advance postwar reconstruction, economic modernization, and the realization of Iran’s enormous potential as an exporter of oil and natural gas. Consequently, all four men who have held Iran’s presidency since 1981 have explored the possibility of normalizing ties. Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei did so with the explicit backing of Khomeini, the first supreme leader; since Khomeini’s death, in 1989, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Seyed Mohammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have pursued it with the clear assent of Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor.

The Leveretts detail several specific episodes in which Iran sought to assist the United States in it geopolitical goals in exchange for recognition of their own, with each eventually being foiled, not by Iranian perfidy, but by American leaders getting cold feet from the rising political price that must be paid for dealing with Iran as an equal partner. Here’s one example:

...Rafsanjani believed that cooperation with Washington should be pursued only under appropriate conditions. Shortly after his election to the presidency in 1989, he said, “Iran will be ready to work with Western countries, but only if they approach us in the right way. That means on equal terms, and without colonial attitudes.”

George H. W. Bush became president of the United States that same year. In his inaugural address, Bush referred to American hostages still held captive in Lebanon with an oblique plea to Iran that could have been crafted by Rafsanjani himself: “Assistance can be shown here, and will be long remembered. Goodwill begets goodwill. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on.” Based on this representation and subsequent ones from Washington, U.N. envoy Giandomenico Picco spoke directly to Rafsanjani and worked with senior Iranian officials to secure the hostages’ freedom. Tehran spent several million dollars and exerted considerable pressure on Shi’a militias in Lebanon for this purpose. Mohsen Rezae, then the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, has said that Iranian officers in Lebanon were attacked by some Lebanese militias over Iran’s efforts to extract the hostages. None of these actions would have happened without Khamenei’s assent.

But Iranian cooperation did not elicit the response Rafsanjani had expected. The Bush administration excluded the Islamic Republic from the October 1991 Madrid conference intended to ratify what Bush called the “new world order” in the Middle East, including the stationing of tens of thousands of American troops in countries neighboring Iran. In April 1992, Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, informed Rafsanjani through Picco that there would be no reciprocal steps by the United States -- even though Iran had succeeded in freeing the last American hostages -- and no breakthrough in relations. Iran had been stiffed, and its leaders were furious. When Picco flew to Tehran to tell Rafsanjani personally that Washington has changed its mind about goodwill begetting goodwill, the Iranian president warned him, “I think it is best if you leave Tehran very, very quickly. The news of what you have told me will travel fast to other quarters, and they may decide not to let you go.”

There are others. The Leveretts paint a picture of an Iran trying to establish itself as an independent nation of regional significance, of repeatedly trying to establish a positive working relationship with the United States as a necessary part of that goal, and repeatedly being snubbed by the United States in return. Why? Perhaps Bill Clinton’s experience is the most illustrative of the underlying reason.

Rafsanjani’s efforts to build a bridge to the United States by working together in areas of mutual interest were further damaged when the Clinton administration beat a highly public retreat from cooperation with Tehran on providing arms to the Bosnian Muslims. In April 1996, seven months before the coming American election, the Los Angeles Times broke the story: “President Clinton secretly gave a green light to covert Iranian arms shipments into Bosnia in 1994 despite a United Nations arms embargo that the United States was pledged to uphold and the administration’s own policy of isolating Tehran globally as a supporter or terrorism.” Two days later, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee -- with Clinton’s presumptive GOP challenger in the 1996 presidential election, Senator Robert Dole, weighing in -- launched its inquiry. Because it was so close to the election and Iran was such a potentially devastating issue, the Clinton administration publicly condemned Tehran for trying to establish an Islamist beachhead in Europe’s backyard -- even though Iran had done exactly what Washington wanted and, in fact, had proven essential to its plan to bring the Bosnian conflict to an end.

Helping Iran, or receiving help from Iran, is toxic in American politics. From the Leveretts’s point of view, this toxicity is based on errors and mistrust and it is, in essence, why they are calling for a new approach to the Islamic Republic.

The United States Seeks Alignment, Not Democracy

Another big idea put forward is that, despite all the rhetoric coming out of Washington, the United States, in fact, has no true vested interest in creating democracies in the Middle East. The U.S. objective, first and foremost, is alignment with its geopolitical interests.

American discourse about the region has updated the old orientalist dichotomy between the traditional (or backward) and the modernized (or Westernized) into a strategic distinction between “moderates” and “radicals.” Washington’s post-World War II strategy in the Middle East had little interest in democratization. Western Europe and Japan were different; there, Washington calculated, democracy was a path into the American-led political and security order. But, in the Middle East, American policy makers recognized (at least until they were blinded by neoconservative ideology) that democratization would empower Islamists and other groups resistant to the American imperial project. That is why, for Washington, a Middle Eastern political order’s status as moderate or radical has been largely divorced from its domestic governance. The standard of moderation is, first and foremost, receptivity to an American-led regional order and, second, an openness to peace with Israel, at least theoretically. Conversely, radicals have been those who challenged American ambitions in the region and rejected peace with Israel, at least on American-specified terms. Thus, in Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq’s government may have been democratically elected, but with a platform that urged the nationalization of Western oil interests and an independent (even if not anti-American) foreign policy, Mossadeq was unacceptably radical. In comparison, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi -- an autocrat so unpopular that he was ultimately deposed by one of the most broadly based revolutions in modern history -- was a moderate.

And make no mistake. The pro-democracy rhetoric coming out of Washington is relentless. Writing about the U.S.’s response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Leveretts briefly describe its long tradition in American history.

To counter this dire threat, Bush invoked basic features of American political culture to mobilize his compatriots behind a campaign to remake the Middle East in line with American preferences. Updating a century-old view that the United States’ security requires transforming states (especially unfriendly ones) into democracies, he tapped into the old mix of liberalism and exceptionalism that American presidents and other elites have long drawn on. The rhetorical formulas are well known: “manifest destiny” (devised by proponents of westward expansion to justify the Mexican War), the “imperialism of righteousness” (deployed by proponents of American colonial power to legitimize the Spanish-American War), and the call to make the world “safe for democracy” (issued by President Woodrow Wilson in his 1917 war message). The constant references to the United States during the Cold War as the “leader of the free world” and in the post-Cold War period as “the indispensable nation” extended the pattern.

Getting your head around these two big ideas is absolutely essential if you are going to understand the Leveretts’s view of things. One, Iran aspires to be an independent country with an independent foreign policy. And two, a Middle Eastern political order (like that in Iran) is not radical if it is opposed to democracy and moderate if it is aligned with it. It is radical if it is opposed to U.S. interests in the region and moderate if it is aligned with it.

And, of course, these two concepts are in conflict with one another. An Iran pursuing its own interests is, by definition, going to be, at least at times, opposed to U.S. interests in the region (regardless of the any democratic or quasi-democratic process it may use to pursue those interests). And if it is opposed to U.S. interests, it will be defined as radical in the language of U.S. foreign policy towards it.

The Shanghai Communique

Perhaps the most remarkable thing in the whole book is something called the Shanghai Communique. It’s essentially a memorandum of understanding that was negotiated by American and Chinese diplomats and which provided the platform on which the new relationship between those two powers could be built. As an example of what could be newly structured between the United States and Iran, the Leveretts cite one of its core paragraphs.

There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. International disputes should be settled on this basis, without resorting to the use or threat of force. The United States and the People’s Republic of China are prepared to apply these principles to their mutual relations.

This strikes me as eminently reasonable, and far preferable to “the use or threat of force”, acknowledging both that such an agreement requires humility on the part of both parties, and that such humility is painfully absent in the relationship that currently exists between the United States and Iran.

And that is essentially the Leveretts’s main point. If the United States is going to “Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” leaders on both sides are going to have to humbly seek some form of common ground. Who is that American leader? If only Nixon could go to China, who is the individual with the credibility to “Go to Tehran”?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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