Flynt Leverett, former Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, discusses how Israel is getting all its ducks in a row for a 2011-2012 attack on Iran, the lack of evidence that Iran ever had a nuclear weapons program (even prior to 2003), the unsettling prospect that the US will go to war with Iran over uranium enrichment and why the delayed release of the new Iran NIE means there is some disagreement among the intelligence agencies.
MP3 here. (18:57) Transcript below.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.
Dr. Leverett is a leading authority on the Middle East and Persian Gulf, U.S. foreign policy, and global energy affairs. From 1992 to 2003, he had a distinguished career in the U.S. government, serving as Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and as a CIA Senior Analyst. He left the George W. Bush Administration and government service in 2003 because of disagreements about Middle East policy and the conduct of the war on terror.
Dr. Leverett’s 2006 monograph, Dealing With Tehran: Assessing U.S. Diplomatic Options Toward Iran, presented the seminal argument for a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain”, an idea that he has developed in multiple articles and Op Eds in The New York Times, The National Interest, POLITICO, Salon, Washington Monthly, and the New America Foundation’s “Big Ideas for a New America” series.
Transcript – Scott Horton interviews Flynt Leverett July 14, 2010
Scott Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio, I’m Scott Horton, and our first guest on the show today is Flynt Leverett. He directs the Iran Project at the New American Foundation, where he’s also a senior research fellow, and he teaches at Pennsylvania State University School of International Affairs. He’s a leading authority on the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and global energy affairs. From 1992 to 2003 he worked for the U.S. government serving as Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, on the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff, and as a senior CIA analyst. He left the Bush administration in 2003 because of disagreements about Middle East policy and the conduct of the war on terror. I think particularly Iran policy was an issue there. Welcome to the show, Flynt, how are you?
Flynt Leverett: Hi, thanks for having me.
Horton: Well thanks very much for joining us. Okay, now, I talked with Gareth Porter last week, and I asked him, “Gareth, I’m hearing all these rumors about ships headed toward Iran and all this pressure and Israel trying to work out deals with the Saudis to use their air space or maybe make some bases out in the desert, these things, and yet they just passed the new sanctions. So it seems like if there’s going to be a conflict, a military conflict with Iran, it would have to be after, you know, I don’t know, a year or so of saying, ‘Well, I guess the sanctions didn’t work. We tried everything and now there’s no choice left but war.'” And Gareth said, “Yeah, that’s right. You know, we have time. It’s not that the danger is over. But don’t panic.” And then, almost as though Bill Kristol listens to my show, which I’m sure he doesn’t –
Leverett: I’m sure he does.
Horton: Oh, yeah, right. The next day or something, they came out, a couple days later they came out and said, “We’re creating the ‘Emergency Committee for Israel.'” The emergency apparently being Iran. What’s going on here?
Leverett: Well, I think I would largely agree with Gareth in terms of the timing of development. I think the deployment of the additional carrier battle group and other assets to the Gulf, I suspect that really is more a matter of rotational arrangements and logistical scheduling. I don’t think it portends, you know, an imminent decision on the part of the United States to use force against Iran. I also think the story about the Israelis reaching agreement with the Saudis to use their air space, overfly Saudi air space, to get the targets in Iran – you know, I suspect there is a certain amount of disinformation or what some call “informational operations” going on there.
Horton: It was in the London Times.
Leverett: Which is actually a pretty frequent venue for that kind of thing.
Leverett: But I think that there is something afoot. My own view is that the Israelis are in all probability not gearing up to strike Iran in the near term, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, and in fact the Israelis are constrained to some degree because their own unilateral options for attacking targets in Iran from a military standpoint are relatively limited. The amount of damage that they could do in Iran is just pretty circumscribed. And I tend to think that the Israelis are playing a much longer game here. And I think you’re right, we now have these new sanctions in place that we’re going to need to go through six months, twelve months or so living with these sanctions until everyone is willing to acknowledge that they’re not having the desired effect. And I think the Israelis are playing a game, looking at a year down the road, 18 months, maybe two years down the road, when after more and more people come on board and say sanctions aren’t working, the Iranians are continuing to develop their fuel cycle capabilities, etc. – at that point, probably around the time that President Obama is gearing up for his own reelection campaign in a serious way, the Israelis can come back and say, “Okay, now we need to do something more coercive around the Iranian problem.” I think they’re sort of softening us up for, you know, say, 18 months from now.
Horton: Well now, what did you make of Obama’s statement to the Israeli press that, I guess apparently he had just come out of one meeting or another with Netanyahu, and then told the Israeli press, when asked, that, “Oh, I don’t think there’ll be any surprises. I think that, you know, if we, if there is ever going to be a war with Iran, Netanyahu and I will arrange it together,” basically.
Leverett: I think that is, in a way, what Obama was saying in that statement. I don’t think Obama would have said it if he didn’t feel like he had some kind of understanding with Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel is not going to take unilateral action in the near term and that Israel is not going to surprise the United States on something this important and that he’s at least going to get to have another conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu before Israel would go down that road. I can’t imagine he would stake out that sort of position in public unless he felt he really did have that kind of understanding with Netanyahu, and I think this is part of the long game that Netanyahu and the Israelis are playing. They’re saying, in essence, “Yeah, we’ll let you see what these sanctions do. You can have time to see how these sanctions play out.” But Netanyahu has also put down markers in public that he doesn’t think the sanctions are going to work, and he’s also put down markers that, as the way he put it, “The only thing that has ever caused the Iranians to stop their nuclear program has been the perceived threat of U.S. military action,” not Israeli military action, but U.S. military action. And he’s shifting the onus, you know, if and when sanctions fail, and he thinks they probably will fail, the only thing that can really stop the Iranians is the threat of U.S. military action. And I think he’s putting all these pieces in place.
Horton: Well, which brings us back to the Emergency Committee for Israel. Is this a piece that Netanyahu is putting in place by way of Bill Kristol?
Leverett: I don’t think I would go so far as to say that Mr. Kristol and his associates are working at the direct behest of Prime Minister Netanyahu, but I’m sure that Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t mind the emergence of this group and I think it is going to be – there is going to be a campaign from the pro-Israel community in the United States. You know, they were very, very focused on getting the sanctions in place and AIPAC’s stated position has been, “We’re focused on getting new sanctions. We’re not urging military action for now.” And they’ve always put in that language, “for now.” But I think the next step is going to be to start hyping the threat, supposedly, that Iran poses to Israel, to start using every channel available and create new channels to drum that message home to the American public that, “Iran is bad, Iran is dangerous, Iran needs to be stopped, and in the end it’s really only the United States that can stop it.” I think you’re going to see an escalation in the delivery of that message through multiple channels from the pro-Israel community here in the United States over the next one to two years.
Horton: Okay, now, everyone who listens to this show already understands that in order for Iran to make nuclear weapons, they would have to basically grant John Bolton’s wish and withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty, kick the inspectors out of the country, and announce to the world, “We’re making nuclear bombs now.” And there is no nuclear weapons threat from Iran until at least – you know, the clock doesn’t even start ticking until the day that that happens, and so far they haven’t fallen into that trap. So, what I want to ask you, on that issue, is a little bit more of an inside baseball question, and that is that the National Intelligence Estimate from 2007 said that the Iranians halted all nuclear weapons work in 2003. And now when I talked to Gareth Porter, he says that he actually has a source who’s read the entire classified version of that NIE and that all of that assertion that there ever was a nuclear weapons program of any description is based on the forged Israeli document posing as an Iranian laptop that says that they had a bench level experiment for laser enrichment of uranium tetraflouride and a few other things that Gareth, in his words, has completely debunked as a forgery. And I guess that bumper music means we have to go out to break and you’ll have a couple of minutes to think about your answer, but I want to know whether there’s any credible evidence they ever had a nuclear weapons program before 2003 even.
Horton: We’ll be right back, y’all.
Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio, Scott Horton. I’m talking with Flynt Leverett, former CIA analyst and National Security Council Middle East staffer expert. He and his wife keep the blog Race for Iran, at raceforiran.com. Basically we’ve been talking about the substance of the article, “Who Will Be Blamed for a U.S. Attack on Iran?” so far in the show. But before we went out to break, I was asking you, sir, whether there was any actual evidence, as opposed to forged documents created by the Mossad, that say that the Iranians ever had a nuclear program before 2003, like is sort of implied or indicated in the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007?
Leverett: Well, to the best of my knowledge, no, there is not. I say that because, you know, I haven’t been working in a classified environment for a number of years now and I certainly wouldn’t claim to know everything that the U.S. intelligence community might have.
Horton: But it’s fair to say that you would have heard, right?
Leverett: Look, my very strong impression is that we know that the Iranians have been working on, you know, a dedicated fuel cycle program focused on uranium enrichment for a long time. Could they have at some point, you know, looked into other kinds of technical or engineering problems that you would need to solve if you were actually at some point going to build a nuclear weapon? Yeah, that’s possible, but I’ve never seen what I would consider clear and convincing evidence of it. And that, you know – we have been through this once before, with regard to Iraq, where we relied on foreign intelligence services, where we didn’t have access to the primary sources, we relied on, you know, defector information. I have a sneaking suspicion that this new NIE, when it comes out, may make use of a lot of information from both defectors and from foreign intelligence services, and I think there is a real risk that we may be going down the same road that we went down with regard to intelligence, anyway, before the war in Iraq.
And from a political standpoint, if we do go to war with Iran, we are basically going to be going to war with them because they’re enriching uranium. Not because they have, as you know you posited earlier, withdrawn from the NPT and are building nuclear weapons. Not because they attacked someone. We’re going to go to war with them, if that’s the way things go, because they’re enriching uranium, and Israel is uncomfortable with that. And I think that’s a really disturbing scenario. I think it’s going to be quite bad for U.S. interests in the region if it plays out. And while there were some critics who tried to argue that we basically went to war in Iraq for the benefit of Israel, as someone who was in government in the run-up to the war with Iraq, I have to say that was not my perception, that was not my experience. But if we go to war with Iran because Iran is enriching uranium, we will basically be doing that because of Israeli discomfort over it and because the pro-Israel community here has really pushed hard to get us to take a confrontational stance toward Iran because it’s enriching uranium. And I think that’s going to be quite bad for U.S. interests if things play out that way.
Horton: Well, even with the war with Iraq, that was kind of a confluence of interests, right? I mean, Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s aide (Powell was the first Secretary of State in the first Bush Jr. administration), he was on the show last week and said that Douglas Feith and David Wurmser both were simply acting as at least de facto agents of Israel in everything they did to get us into the war in Iraq.
Leverett: I think there were a lot of the neoconservatives who clearly were in the vanguard of pushing us to go to war in Iraq. I just think, from my own experience in January of 2002, just as I was getting ready to move from the State Department over to the White House – I was a U.S. representative at this annual conference in Herzliya, basically the annual gathering of Israel’s national security community, and there was clearly a lot of interest at that conference in sort of where the U.S. was going to go next in terms of the war on terror, and the message that I got from Israeli participants in that conference was, if the United States chose to go war in Iraq, that the thing was, Israel wasn’t going to say, “No, don’t do that,” but as far as Israel was concerned, you know, it was a much higher priority to go after Iran. In some respects, going after Iraq was the wrong country, as far as Israel was concerned. I think they would have preferred to see us really giving priority to going after Iran. That’s obviously not how things worked out.
Horton: Well, and there’s a difference too between the policies that the neoconservatives in America put first and even Ariel Sharon’s policies.
Leverett: Yes. And I think that distinction matters. And I think that the neoconservatives certainly bear, you know, a lion’s share of the blame for the debacle in Iraq, but I think that the role of Israel and of the pro-Israel community in the United States in pushing that war was not as great as some would make it out to be. But in this case, if we go to war with Iran – as I said, go to war with them, attack them, because they’re enriching uranium – we’re basically going to be doing that because of an Israeli agenda.
Horton: Okay, now, it looks like I’m not going to have a chance to ask you about the peace offer of 2003, because more important and more timely is this new NIE that you mentioned. Mark Hosenball of Newsweek says that it’s the Israeli Mossad and the German intelligence agency, I forget what it’s called –
Leverett: Yeah, the BND.
Horton: The BND, right. That they are the ones insisting that, “No, there is a nuclear weapons program in Iran,” and Hosenball said that yeah, they’re I guess in the middle of rewriting it right now. Do you know, have you heard in the wind or anything – I heard you when you said you don’t have access to classified information anymore, but do you know of any evidence that says that there’s any kind of parallel secret nuclear effort in Iran of any description, or are we simply just talking about Natanz and all their 3.6 enriched uranium laying right there?
Leverett: You know, I think Western intelligence services have been searching for years for that parallel program and there are many people who are convinced that it must exist, but to the best of my knowledge, no one has actually come up with hard evidence of a parallel program.
Horton: Is there any pushback in the CIA or the other intelligence agencies that participate in the National Intelligence Council trying to resist doing this? Because after all, even though the neocons did their part over at the Pentagon really in coming up with the talking points, the CIA took all the blame for Iraq – are they going to, you know, go ahead and roll over with the political pressure here, you think?
Leverett: I’ve heard that there is some pushback within the community, and it is striking that I think the appearance of this NIE is quite overdue at this point. It’s well past its due date, and that would seem to confirm to me the idea that there may be some disagreement.
Horton: All right. Great. Well, thanks very much for your time. Everybody, Flynt Leverett, raceforiran.com.
Leverett: Thank you very much.