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The Leveretts and the Accountability of the American Analysts on Iran

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The list of foreigners who unconditionally support the Islamic Republic of Iran is short but not unexpected: Omar Albashir of Sudan, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, Khalid Mashal of Hamas, and Hugo Chavez of Venezula might be at the top. Add to this list an unlikely duo: Flynt Leverett and his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett.

Notwithstanding over two decades of collective experience working for organizations and entities like the CIA, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the National Security Council, the Leveretts are currently America's most prominent, and abrasive, defenders of the Iranian regime and its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Though they cloak their analysis in the guise of strategic thinking and anti-war diplomacy, their writings betray a dangerous lack of understanding of Iran's internal realities as well as an almost bigoted contempt for the Iranian people.

Take for example a recent article on their blog the "Race for Iran -- whose name conjures memories of British colonialism -- entitled "Iraq Redux: 'Conventional Wisdom' and Accountability for Iran Analysts". The Leveretts posit that "no one paid a price for the colossal analytic failures that neutered our debate about the war in Iraq--and, now, the political classes are once again falling for an intellectually lazy but politically convenient conventional wisdom regarding an important foreign policy issue, this time about the Islamic Republic of Iran."

In illustrating their points, however, the Leverett's are the ones guilty of intellectual laziness and a lack of objectivity. Instead of serious, fact-based analysis, they rely mostly on ad-hominem attacks against those who don't share their unconditional support for the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, had the Leverett's piece been written in Persian it could have easily been confused with the writing of Hussein Shariatmadari, the radical editor in chief of hardline Kayhan Newspaper (Fox News on steroids).

While the Leveretts attack those who don't share their rosy opinion of the Iranian regime as "completely wrong" and "partisan", their key source in Tehran is their erstwhile co-author Seyed Mohammad Marandi, who has emerged as the Iranian government's chief spokesperson in the English-language media. Marandi, who arranged for the Leveretts' to visit Tehran recently, consistently defends and dissimulates the brutality of the Iranian government, dismissing well documented prison rapes and murders as Western and Zionist-media conspiracies.

Because of the fact that the Leveretts continue to be offered a prominent place in the public debate about Iran, their analysis deserves careful scrutiny. Particularly their latest article whose tone, language, and logic could have been written from the pen of Ahmaidnejad's official speechwriter. Here are some "corrective observations" on the Leveretts' arguments:

"The Green Movement" vs. the government

The couple challenges Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who said in The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler article, "there is a clique in power" in Tehran that "does not respond to incentives and does not respond to disincentives." Sajadpour also said "the Iranian government is "under siege from the popular uprising last year after a disputed presidential election". The Leveretts call Karim's argument "wholly unsubstantiated" and "false--assertion," and to explain their judgment, they continue:

"The evidence of the Green movement's decline since June 2009 is clear and irrefutable. One of the very strong impressions we took away from our visit to Tehran in February--shortly after the publicly promised and widely anticipated show of strength by the Green movement on February 11, the anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founding, had turned out to be an almost complete "bust"--is that the Iranian government is far from being "under siege" and is, in fact, quite confident in its base of popular support."

Corrective Observations: "Where to begin?" What defines a decline in a movement? How can the Leveretts claim "the Iranian government ...is, in fact, quite confident of its base of popular support," when the fact is that the government has had to arrests thousands of people, and continues to do so, has killed dozens, and has sentenced at least ten protesters to death for "throwing rocks" and similar bogus charges. The February 11th anniversary was never meant to be the peak of the people's protests. Not to mention that the government had 8 months to get out of shock mode and to utilize its propaganda machine in order to show the world, and people like the Leveretts, that they have brought the protests under control and the movement is extinguished. For anybody who is in touch with the Iranian society on a daily basis, it is obvious that the overwhelming frustration among millions of people exists and they are awaiting constructive and strategic opportunities to step out again.

The couple's "impression" from their visit to Tehran reflects neither facts nor the reality on the ground.

The people showed their power in the Ashura protest and in others like it. Their strongest protest was the time they neglected the Supreme Leader's warning in his Friday prayer just following the election last June. He had warned of the consequences of further protests and still millions appeared on the streets of Tehran anyway.

With the government using execution sentences, rape and torture to prevent people from protesting , of course it is forcing the Movement to change it's course away from street protests; that is all. It is completely ridiculous to conclude that the movement has ceased because it has refrained from walking into the regime's militant trap. Therefore, the Leveretts' reasoning for the "bust" of the "movement", or whatever you call it, is grossly negligent. It basically reflects the narrative of the Leveretts' hosts in Tehran. To say that because there has not been any further protests in Tehran and that the government has a strong popular base is frighteningly simplistic. As simplistic as Jimmy Carter's famous remark on January 1, 1978 in Tehran, calling Iran "an Island of Stability," as the anti-Monarch Revolution was about to explode into the scene.

Iran's Foreign Policy; Ideologically Driven or Rational?
The Leverettes say:

"Claims that the Islamic Republic's foreign policy debate is too ideologically constrained to allow for a strategic opening to the United States are simply not supported by the historical record. On this point, we recommend a recent interview with Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Islamic Republic's Atomic Energy Organization and our piece about that interview. In particular, Salehi's words in this interview about America should be read by all those who continue to circulate the false and a babat maman historical argument that the Islamic Republic's legitimacy is irrevocably grounded in hostility to the United States."

Corrective Observations: The response by the Leveretts on whether Iran's foreign policy is " ideologically constrained to allow for a strategic opening to the United States" or not, is simplistic and loose. You don't have to be an expert on Iran or have lived in the country to understand how, over the past three decades, the IRI has made hostilities towards the United States a major part of its identity. Even though there have been some moves towards the United States in the past, the industry of anti-American sentiment has constrained the Iranian leaders deeming them unable to make a positive change.

The way that the Iranian authorities portrayed the role of the U.S. during the post elections protests as masterminding the unrest is a clear example of how the IRI has been strangled by it's own rhetoric. If the IRI gives up its anti-American sentiment then it would be a different phenomenon. There is a very strong radical faction within the current establishment that believes once Iran normalizes its relationship with the U.S., the clock will start ticking towards the regime's collapse. That's why, regardless of some efforts towards resolving Tehran's problems with Washington, there have been no systematic actions.

It has become a tradition to place the blame on the U.S. for any obstacles in running the country since the Revolution. Iranian leaders are facing a wide range of serious problems, including bad management, corruption, incompetence, costly foreign policy, and a divided political system that is highly polarized, with millions of people who are overwhelmingly frustrated by the government's economic performance. Now, more than ever, the Iranian leaders blame the U.S. as the root of all their troubles.

I believe that even though many Iranian conservative strive for a better relationship with the U.S., those who are pulling the strings know otherwise and fear that a post-normalized Iran would face huge domestic crisis. So, the animosity towards the U.S. is not a matter of choice but inevitable necessity. It is the rulers' way of justify domestic shortcomings, while they are incapable of providing any real solutions. It's no surprise that the vast majority of the Iranian middle class supports normal relations with Washington.

The Supreme Leader and Iran's Decision Making Circles

The Leveretts go on to criticize Sajadpour's view on the decision making structure in Iran. Sajadpour told Washington Post :

"the purge of moderates from the decision-making structures in Iran has made it more likely that the country will attempt 'the Pakistan option.' Under this scenario, Iran would declare itself a nuclear weapons state, endure the condemnation and then watch as the world comes crawling back, anxious to bring it back into the international fold."

The couple challenges his's point in the "corrective observations" they provide:

"...Who are the moderates that have been "purged" from high-level decision-making about nuclear matters? There is ample evidence that, since Ahmadinejad became President in 2005, Ayatollah Khamenei has taken numerous affirmative steps to ensure that he continues to hear a wide range of views about nuclear issues. Ali Larijani, Hassan Rohani, Kamal Kharrazi, even Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani--all continue to play important roles in the ongoing discussion of nuclear matters in Iranian leadership circles. At the same time, there is no evidence that Iran is moving toward a "Pakistan option"--which, we suppose, Karim would distinguish from a so-called "Japan option". Our understanding is that, while Ayatollah Khamenei strongly supports continued development of Iran's nuclear capabilities, at this point he also continues to oppose any move toward overt weaponization."

Corrective Observations: On this point, I believe the Leveretts have had other names in mind but mistakenly have raised the names like Rohani, Kharazi and even the moderate Hashemi Rafsanjani. It's astonishing that the Leveretts leave out names like Hassan Firouzabadi, Joint Chief of Staff, and Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Revolutionary Guard, and even Saeed Jalili, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

Obviously the Leveretts have not monitored major changes in Iran's decision-making structure since 2005. To put it nicely, one would be a fool to imagine that any of the aforementioned would get along with the others on major policies. It's like President Obama getting advice from Karl Rove and Joe Biden on what to do in regards to Iran policy.

The Leverretts negligence to understand the basics of Iran's policy-making structure lead the couple to speculate of a "Japan Option" instead of a "Pakistan Option" leaving one to just guess at proof of their claim as to whether Iran is moving toward making a nuclear bomb or not. Perhaps the Leveretts have had meetings with ranking IRGC forces and they have insured that militarization of Iran's nuclear program in not happening. I don't believe that Iran is irrational enough to choose such a costly path. This Nostradamus style of speculation by the Leveretts just seems unreasonable.

The Iran of 2010 and the Iraq of 2003: What is missed?

The Leveretts claim:

"In the years preceding America's 2003 invasion of Iraq, many American elites allowed themselves to be taken in by Ahmad Chalabi and others espousing a romantic view of the possibilities for political transformation in Iraq that would solve all of the major challenges to American interests in the Middle East. Politicians, policymakers, journalists and others should not allow themselves to be taken in again--or excuse bad and misleading analysis of Iranian developments because those promoting that analysis must surely "mean well". At this point in America's post-9/11 engagement in the Middle East, we cannot afford that kind of sentimentality anymore."

Corrective Observations: I truly agree with the Leveretts on what led to the invasion of Iraq. It is also completely true that in dealing with Iran " bad and misleading analysis of Iranian development" is not affordable for the United States, the Iranian people and the Middle East region in general.

But who is misleading the public and the decision-making circles? The fact that the Leveretts' analysis ignores Iran's recent developments, internal politics, political traditions and the domestic legitimacy crisis is not only poisonous but also pushing Iran to act more and more irresponsibly and provocatively.

Also, the Leveretts ignore the fact that the 2003 Iraq is incomparable with the 2010 Iran. Iraq in 2003 was a country with a destroyed civil society, thanks to years of blanket U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Iraq in 2003 was in a different age of communication; the pre-social media era.

Also, the comparison between Ahmad Chalabi and the two reformist presidential candidates, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, is preposterous. Mousavi and Karroubi, have stronger support within the IRI establishment than does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They were much closer to Ayatollah Khomeini than many mediocre politicians that have surrounded the leader these past five years. That's why the Iranian security establishment has chosen to bark but not bite with regards to its threats to arrest them post election. Why is that?

In the early eighties, in fights between Mousavi; the then Prime Minister, and Khameni; the then President, Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly took side with his Prime Minister. Unlike Chalabi who came to Iraq from the outside and who was more like a puppet, Mousavi came from within Iran and is a man with strong character who brought 3 million people to the streets in his support after last June's election. The Leverettes lack the understanding that it's not possible to analyze Iran's current situation with regards to their knowledge about Iraq.

A thousand Chalabis cannot equate one Mousavi, nor can one thousand Ahmadinejad equate one Hashemi Ransanjani or one Khatami; a moderate president that was not taken seriously by people like the Leveretts when he was in power, a miscalculation that contributed to the elections of Ahmadinejad in 2005.

The fact that the Leveretts cannot differentiate between Khatami and Jafari or between Mousavi-Karrubi and Chalabi raises the question; what were they doing in Tehran? Just eating Kabab and Doogh with Dr. Marandi and the others who wanted to paint for them a rosy picture of post election Iran.
Labeling Iranians who challenge the government as "Chalabis" is what paid agents of the IRI do anywhere they can. It's appalling to hear analysts, such as the Leverettes fall under the Iranians government's narrative.

Those who perpetuate any false narratives about Iran's political development, neither serve Iran and its people nor do they help resolve the nuclear crisis.

***

The Leveretts have not only misread the Conservatives in Tehran, but have also misread the opposition movement in Iran, regardless of its destiny. Neither their hate for the moderate president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) nor their love for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have served the decision-making community in Washington.

However, as the Leveretts say "Whether on Wall Street or in American foreign policy, lack of accountability for duplicity and/or incompetence sets up all of us for profoundly damaging outcomes."

I hope that the couple frame this and hang it on their wall to never forget that if it were not for people like Dr. Marandi in Tehran or people like themselves in Washington, to support the IRI unconditionally, perhaps, less people would have been killed in Tehran or be killed in the future.