Daniel W. Drezner

How much do I dislike the Leveretts’ op-ed today? Let me count the ways…..

You know how so many in the blogosphere bitch and moan about the ability of neoconservatives to get their policy proposals published even after screwing up on Iraq?  I’m kind of curious how these people feel about Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett’s op-ed in the New York Times today about Iran.  I mean, this ...

You know how so many in the blogosphere bitch and moan about the ability of neoconservatives to get their policy proposals published even after screwing up on Iraq? 

I’m kind of curious how these people feel about Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett’s op-ed in the New York Times today about Iran.  I mean, this is a scant few months after they served as apologists for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the controversial June election.  I guess the Leveretts know Gwen Pollard well. 

Others can debate whether the Leveretts deserve the prime real estate on the NYT op-ed page.  I’d like to focus on the fact that the op-ed itself makes no f***ing sense whatsoever. 

Let’s take a look at it, shall we?

[T]he meeting on Thursday in Geneva of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany with Iran (the “five plus one” talks) will not be an occasion for strategic discussion but for delivering an ultimatum: Iran will have to agree to pre-emptive limitations on its nuclear program or face what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “crippling” sanctions.

However, based on conversations we’ve had in recent days with senior Iranian officials — including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — we believe it is highly unlikely Iran will accept this ultimatum.

Oh, wow… senior Iranian officials told the Leveretts that they would not concede?  Well, I’d definitely take that at face value.  I’m sure these were the same people who told the Leveretts that Ahmadinejad was the legitimate victor back in June.  Clearly, these are reliable sources with zero incentive to dissemble to regime-friendly pundits in the United States.  And it’s not like they have anything to hide.  Oh, wait….

 American officials tend to play down Iranian concerns about American intentions, citing public messages from President Obama to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as proof of the administration’s diplomatic seriousness. But Tehran saw these messages as attempts to circumvent Iran’s president — another iteration, in a pattern dating from Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, of American administrations trying to create channels to Iranian “moderates” rather than dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system.

Wow again.  See, I would view these exchanges with Khamenei as attempts to talk to the person with actual control over Iran’s nuclear program, as opposed to the guy who rants on and on about how the Holocaust was just a big myth. 

Indeed, the Obama administration is "dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system" — and they are trying to talk to the people with genuine foreign policy power.  The Leveretts, on the other hand, seem to be convinced that the only way to talk with Iran is through Ahmadinejad. 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration was enticed by the prospect of regime-toppling instability in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential election this summer. But compared to past upheavals in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history — the forced exile of a president, the assassination of another, the eight-year war with Iraq and the precipitous replacement of Ayatollah Khomeini’s first designated successor, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, with Ayatollah Khamenei — the controversy over this year’s election was hardly a cataclysmic event.

Seriously, how did this paragraph get past the op-ed editors?  First of all, beyond a rhetorical flourish or two and asking Twitter to hold off on their scheduled maintenance, what exactly did the Obama administration do to foment regime-toppling instability?  Second, if the largest street demonstrations since the 1979 revolution don’t qualify as a big event, what would convince the Leveretts of the import of the June election?  More YouTube videos?  Hand puppets? 

Instead of pushing the falsehood that sanctions will give America leverage in Iranian decision-making — a strategy that will end either in frustration or war — the administration should seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China. This would require Washington to take steps, up front, to assure Tehran that rapprochement would serve Iran’s strategic needs.

On that basis, America and Iran would forge a comprehensive framework for security as well as economic cooperation — something that Washington has never allowed the five-plus-one group to propose. Within that framework, the international community would work with Iran to develop its civil nuclear program, including fuel cycle activities on Iranian soil, in a transparent manner rather than demanding that Tehran prove a negative — that it’s not developing weapons. A cooperative approach would not demonize Iran for political relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah, but would elicit Tehran’s commitment to work toward peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts.

This seems as propitious a moment as any to cave to popular demand that I articulate some thoughts on the sanctions question with regard to Iran.  I would expect some somewhat more utility in the sanctions process than the Leveretts.  If the U.S. can foster cooperation among the P5 + 1, and the Iranians see the extent of this cooperation, then I think they’d be willing to deal.  That’s not an easy proposition to pull off, and would require both diplomatic skill and will.  That does not mean it should’t be tried, however.  Even the effort to build momentum in the Security Council might prompt serious bargaining from the Iranians. 

I would also like to know how the Iranian opposition feels about sanctions.  If they reject them as a policy tool, well, that’s a good argument against their imposition.  On the other hand, if this is a replay of South Africa, then that’s something else to consider. 

One final point — the analogy with Nixon’s opening to China makes zero sense in the current context.  Nixon was trying to outflank the Soviet Union during the Cold War by cozying up to their most powerful bordering state.  What the Leveretts seem to be proposing is a multilateral move to bring Iran in from the cold — which benefits Russia and China far more than it benefits the United States.  In other words, I’m not sure how a Nixon strategy works in the P5 + 1 framework. 

I suppose that the Obama administration could attempt secret shuttle diplomacy with Iran to outflank Moscow and Beijing.  Such a gambit would infuriate our European allies and push Israel into panicking, however — and I’m not sure that’s worth whatever strategic gains would be had by a rapprochement with the regime in Tehran. 

So, to review, I give the Leverett op-ed an "I" — for being inchoate, inconsistent, and idiotic. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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