The Case for Diplomacy With Iran
Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, Metropolitan Books, 496 pages
You might not assume it from the title of Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s book but as it suggests, the United States, through our elected representatives in Washington D.C., don’t need to like the Islamic Republic. The President, the Congress, and our diplomats don’t have to think that Iran is moral. The American people don’t even have to understand the machinations of Iran’s body politic. Our political leaders – especially the President – need only accept Iran’s government as legitimate, and therefore able to negotiate on behalf of the Iranian people.
There is no way to make a sober judgment about the future of U.S. – Iranian relations unless we see the current situation from the perspective of both parties. This is the most important insight gained from this book. Iranian leaders are not the caricatures that are common to the Iran experts on television and print. To elucidate this point the Leveretts make two bold – if not accurate – claims about the Islamic Republic and its leaders: the government of Iran is a rational actor and it is the legitimate government of Iran.
The authors begin the assessment of rationality by challenging the American reader to understand how the Islamic Republic assesses its national priorities – both internal and foreign. The answer is simple: what would America do. Iranian leaders shape their policies like any rational country would. “Material realities – geography, demographics, military and economic capabilities – play a large role. But softer factors – shared identities and aspirations, principled beliefs about right and wrong, subjective assessments of other states’ intentions – bear an influence as well.” The Leveretts explain that the Islamic Republic’s national security goals are shaped by foreign domination beginning in the 19th century. Curiously, they expend almost no ink reminding the reader of Iran’s former dynastic histories. After all, as Robert Baer, author and former CIA case officer stationed in the Middle East has said, there is a reason they call it the Persian Gulf. However, this minor detail does not affect the book in any way. In fact it reminds the reader that Iran’s government is remarkably modern, even by its own standards.
The rationality of the Iranian government is considered with regard to the all-important question of nuclear proliferation. The reader is reminded that three strategic considerations inform Tehran’s progress with low-enriched uranium. The first is that Iran could never equal the total numbers of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States or Israel. The second is that Iranian officials calculate that so long Iran does not cross the “red line” of weaponization the United States or Israel will not attack. Third, the only countries supportive of Iran’s nuclear program – Russia, China, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa – would end their political support. Moreover, Iranian officials know it is a strategically bad decision. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran’s IAEA ambassador, has said that it would be a ‘strategic mistake’ for Iran to build nuclear weapons, as it “cannot compete in terms of the numbers of warheads possessed by the nuclear-armed powers, so if it seeks to produce nuclear weapons, it will be in a disadvantageous position compared with these countries.” Sounds rational enough. The case for rationality is strengthened with the assessments of current and former Israeli statesmen. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has stated, “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, [would] drop it in the neighborhood. They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision making process, and they understand reality” (emphasis added).
If the leaders in Tehran are making rational decisions in the best interest of the Iranian people but are not the legitimate governing body then the question of rationality is a moot point. The authors next remind the reader that the current government in Tehran is legitimate by its own and the Iranian people’s standards. This was most obvious in the Green Revolution after the 2009 elections.
On this point, the Leveretts point to two Western approaches to the Iranian Revolution and current political order that prevent Washington from accepting the government in Tehran as representative of the thoughts, intentions, and norms of Iranian people; in other words legitimate. First, the revolution is regressive and therefore unable to appreciate Western liberalization. In the other approach the Iranian revolution was “hijacked”, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the authors’ estimation both of these perspectives fail to appreciate that Iranians have chosen the current political order time and time again. From the original revolution in 1979 until the most recent national elections, Iranians have consistently reaffirmed the current form of government. Washington’s belief that the Islamic Republic cannot be legitimate until it adopts a secularized Western-style of governance is, “deeply flawed [and] dangerously misleading as guides for policy making” (p. 152-154).
The 2009 election and the protests instigated by the defeated party through the Green movement are broken down into two parts: the polls showing that Ahmadinejad did indeed win and the rush of Western Iran-watchers that were quick to condemn the election results.
Making the case that the elections were free, fair, and representative of the views of Iranians the authors bring our attention to four polls conducted one month before the election to three months after the vote. Three of the polls were conducted by Western groups based out of the United States and Canada and one by the University of Tehran. According to these polls Ahmadinejad never trailed Mousavi.
In assessing the Green movement the authors ask the reader to suspend all prior notions regarding the movement’s organizers. How is it that so many protestors that were interviewed spoke English? How is it possible that the supposed backbone of the movement – Twitter – that attracted so much attention in the West was done in English and not Farsi? The answer is that the Green movement never was.
Western journalists worked primarily in North Tehran which was coincidently where Mousavi – the Green movement’s leader – had won the most support. It is no coincidence that foreign journalists would come in contact with English speaking youths declaring their desire for a secular democracy. The English language tweets were primarily coming from Western journalists unable or unwilling to make the distinction between a genuine social movement and disaffected youths living in their midst.
The Leveretts finish with an explanation of why American rapprochement with Iran is the only way to achieve our strategic goals in the Middle East. It would not be unheard of in American Politics for warming or relations between Washington and a foreign government whose interests are inimical to our own.
The parallels between the Islamic Republic and the People’s Republic of China are revealing in so much as how they can guide American policy makers. Iran is as critical to U.S. interests today as China was during the Cold War and the diplomatic overtures from Washington to each country have some similarities. For instance, as with Tehran, Washington decided that the PRC had to be delegitimized, isolated, and eliminated. And echoing the claim that the 1979 Iranian revolution had been hijacked, high level Washington policy makers asserted that the Chinese communists had “captured” an otherwise laudable revolutionary process. In a startling similarity between the Washington consensus on the PRC and the Islamic Republic, informed opinion believed the People’s Republic to be “fanatically ideological.”
Again the authors ask the reader to set aside these assumptions and view the current Iran question the same way the Nixon Administration did: strategically. In keeping with the notion that Washington needs to push a grand bargain with Tehran the authors remind us that President Nixon boldly shifted American policy regarding the PRC: we will regard our Communist adversaries [Nixon said] first and foremost as nations pursuing their own interests as they perceive these interests, just as we follow our own interests as we see them.
Only when there is this level of sober understanding regarding Iran – its government, its leaders, its citizens, its interests – can the United States, according the Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, mend a relationship with a regionally important nation who needs us as much as we need them.