By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett: As President Obama signaled renewed interest last week in a “diplomatic resolution to the problem” with Iran, liberal advocates of soft regime change are again coming out of the woodwork to profess their support for engaging Tehran.
The New York Times’ Roger Cohen published a columnin this week that reveals much about the outlook of many liberal political and policy elites regarding diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. As the re-elected Obama administration gears up for another go at nuclear negotiations with Tehran, the kind of mendaciousness and self-deception manifested in Cohen’s piece is all too likely to characterize the Iran policy debate in Washington.
Cohen opens by noting that, “in re-electing Barack Obama, [the American people] voted for peace and against a third war in a Muslim nation in little over a decade.” At the same time, Obama faces “no more immediate strategic challenge” than the Iranian nuclear issue:
“The question of whether the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace or for a breakthrough with Iran should be the first diplomatic priority for Obama’s second term amounts to a no-brainer. It’s Iran, stupid. (There are no good options in Syria and — as with most Middle Eastern issues — American non-communication with Iran on the matter is unhelpful. Iran’s constructive role in the 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan is too often forgotten.)
“War with Iran would be devastating, to a Middle East in transition, to U.S. interests from Afghanistan to Egypt, and to the global economy. The time available for averting conflict is limited.”
These considerations — and other factors of longer standing — should point the United States toward diplomacy with Tehran. Yet, in Obama’s first term, Cohen writes, “Republican machismo prevailed on many fronts. Demonization of Iran was a never-ending source of rhetorical inspiration. Democrats were not far behind.” Now, “diplomacy is in urgent need of resurrection.”
On the surface, anyway, so far so good. But what Cohen fails to mention is that a cadre of Obama supporters, himself included, are at least as responsible as neoconservatives for sabotaging prospects for successful U.S.-Iranian diplomacy during Obama’s first term.
And these self-professedly well-meaning liberals did so because, fundamentally, they are no less devoted than neoconservatives to the pursuit of regime change in Iran. In contrast to the neocons, liberals don’t think that war is the smart way to go about encouraging regime change in Iran — but they are no less focused on regime change as their ultimate objective there.
Following the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election, Roger Cohen was one of the most assiduous voices in the Western media claiming that the election had been stolen, that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had lost his popular support, and that the massive electoral fraud required to deprive challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi of his electoral victory had undermined the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy.
See, for example, this piece, from early July 2009, in which Cohen describes the re-elected President Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards, and the basij as “Iran’s ruthless usurpers,” asserting that “the government is now illegitimate” and, therefore, should not be engaged.
Of course, Cohen had no evidence for any of these claims. Neither Mousavi nor anyone in his campaign or anyone connected with the Green Movement ever presented any hard evidence of electoral fraud, either at polling stations or in the counting of votes — even though, given the way the election was conducted, it would have been relatively easy to do so had fraud actually occurred.
Moreover, every methodologically sound poll carried out in Iran before and after the election — 14 in all, by Western polling groups as well as by the University of Tehran, see here — indicated that Ahmadinejad’s re-election with just over 60 percent of the vote (what the official results showed) was eminently plausible.
As weeks and months went by, and no proof of electoral fraud emerged — much less fraud on the scale needed to account for Ahmadinejad’s 11-million vote victory margin — Cohen ultimately fell back on “sometimes you have to smell the truth.” (For its part, The New York Times seemed all too happy to publish such fatuousness.)
It was also evident that the Green Movement did not represent anything close to a majority of Iranians and that within a week of the election its social base was already contracting.
Cohen was certainly not alone in advancing this kind of evidence-free analysis. Other liberal stalwarts — including Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione, Thomas Friedman (Cohen’s colleague at The New York Times), Barbara Slavin, and Robin Wright — joined in.
The West’s “best” and “most respected” Iran analysts — including Ali Ansari, Reza Aslan, Farideh Farhi, Suzanne Maloney, Trita Parsi, Karim Sadjadpour, and Ray Takeyh (several of them expatriates who want the Islamic Republic to disappear so that their vision of a secular liberal Iran might be fulfilled, even though that is manifestly not what most Iranians who actually live in their country want) — gave it their imprimatur.
Virtually all of these figures had anticipated that Mousavi’s electoral challenge to Ahmadinejad would succeed. Their hopeful expectation rested not on dispassionate analysis of Iranian political trends, but on a deeply held, largely unquestioned assumption: that Iran is inevitably headed toward liberal democracy — because that’s what American liberals and many U.S.-based Iranian expatriates want it to become, just like neoconservatives do.
(What is the ultimate goal for Parsi and the organization he heads, the National Iranian American Council? According to NIAC’s Web site, “a world in which the United States and a democratic Iran” — no mention of the Islamic Republic — “enjoy peaceful, cooperative relations.”)
And when those pesky Iranian voters did not defer to liberal outsiders’ vision for their future — most Iranians, it seems, want a system that seeks to combine participatory politics with principles of Islamic governance — many of the same liberals and expatriates persisted in their penchant for analysis-by-wishful-thinking, cavalierly dismissing the election results as the product of fraud.
This sort of wishful thinking is not benignly incorrect; it has had real (and negative) impact on the prospects for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy — which most liberals say they prefer to U.S. military action against Iran or another ill-begotten American campaign for coercive regime change in the Middle East.
Cohen, Parsi, and other like-minded activists and commentators led the charge in pressing the Obama administration to take what Parsi called a “tactical pause” from diplomacy with Tehran — which had not even commenced at that point — because the Islamic Republic was potentially on the verge of collapse.
Or, as Cohen wrote (rather floridly) in early July 2009: “Obama must leave [Khamenei and Ahmadinejad] dangling for the foreseeable future. He should refrain indefinitely from talk of engagement. … To do otherwise would be to embrace the usurpers. …
“I’ve argued strongly for engagement with Iran as a game-changer. America renewed relations with the Soviet Union at the time of the Great Terror and China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Operation Jackboot has not, as yet at least, involved mass killings.
“But the Iran of today is not the Iran of three weeks ago; it is in volatile flux from without and within. Its Robespierres are running amok. Obama must do nothing to suggest business as usual. Let Ahmadinejad, he of the bipolar mood swings, fret and sweat. Let him writhe in the turbid puddle of his self-proclaimed ‘justice’ and ‘ethics’ … The price of Obama’s engagement may just have become Ahmadinejad’s departure. I think it has.”
Deploying such unsubstantiated but inflammatory claims, it was Obama’s liberal base in 2009 which derailed possibilities for U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy — just as Bush’s neoconservative stalwarts did with their designation of Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” in the wake of 9/11.
The Obama administration had previously decided to delay serious engagement with Tehran until after the June 2009 election, hoping that it could then deal with a Mousavi-led government. There was, of course, no reason to expect that such a government would have taken a fundamentally different tack in nuclear negotiations with the United States — but that wasn’t the point for Mousavi’s backers in Washington.
The point was to enhance Mousavi’s chances for victory, and with that victory, get Iran back on the path toward a more Westernized, liberalized, and ultimately secularized political future.
With the controversy (fueled by Cohen, Parsi and others) that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election victory, the administration did not get back on track to start nuclear talks with Iran until the fall of 2009 — even though Obama had promised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that, if negotiations had not produced results by the end of 2009, the United States would put diplomacy aside and push for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
This meant that the Obama administration put its (convoluted and one-sided) proposal for a fuel “swap” to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor on the table as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, thereby dooming prospects for a deal — just as a re-elected Obama administration is today considering making even more one-sided, take-it-or-leave-it proposals to Iran regarding its nuclear activities.
More broadly, the unsubstantiated portrayal of the 2009 election as stolen — the portrayal pushed by Cohen, Friedman, Parsi, Sadjadpour et al. — has helped to enable neoconservative policy outcomes. Thus, NIAC’s advocacy of “targeted” or “precision” sanctions against the Iranian government has served only to facilitate the passage of broad-based sanctions.
Similarly, by arguing that he was all in favor of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, just not after a particular election and not with what he alleged (again, with no evidence), were political thieves, Cohen provided de facto legitimation to neoconservatives, supporters of the MEK, the pro-Israel lobby and others who say that (take your pick) Iranian officials’ rhetoric about Israel, Tehran’s support for groups resisting Israeli occupation, the Islamic Republic’s insistence on including religion in its constitution, its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, and/or Iranians’ annual commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom on Ashura render engagement with Iran a fool’s errand — politically, morally, and strategically.
For U.S. policymakers, the most fundamental question with regard to pursuing diplomacy with Iran should be: Is diplomatic engagement with Tehran, with the goal of strategic realignment between the United States and the Islamic Republic, in America’s interest?
If it is (as we strongly believe to be the case), then the only question left is: What does the United States need to do to make engagement work? Anything else is not just unhelpful; it is dangerously counter-productive, ensuring that diplomacy will fail and that the risks of a strategically disastrous war (disastrous, first of all, for the United States) will rise.
But that is what the liberal approach, epitomized by Cohen, Parsi, Slavin et al. has done: it has made real rapprochement between the United States and Iran less likely and war ultimately more likely.
Today, Cohen, Parsi, Slavin and others have hopped back on the pro-diplomacy bandwagon. But look at what they and other like-minded commentators think diplomacy should entail.
As Cohen writes: “What do we want from Iran? Open up all its nuclear facilities, get rid of all its 20 percent enriched uranium, end all threats to Israel, stop rampant human rights abuses, changed policies on Hamas and Hezbollah, a constructive approach to Syria.”
Outside the nuclear sphere, an Iran that accepted such an agenda would no longer be the Islamic Republic. Indeed, John Bolton wouldn’t have any problem with that agenda; he would simply disagree with Cohen that it is possible to get Tehran to accept, through diplomacy, such thoroughgoing revision of its (internal as well as external) political orientation.
Likewise, Parsi and NIAC once again favor diplomacy — but they stipulate that American engagement with Tehran must include “human rights as a core issue.”
This is strategic and diplomatic nonsense. Sino-American rapprochement would never have worked had Nixon and Kissinger made human rights a “core issue”; U.S.-Iranian rapprochement won’t work on that basis either.
Insisting that Iran “end all threats to Israel” — when, in fact, the Islamic Republic has never threatened to attack Israel while Israel assassinates Iranian scientists and routinely threatens to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities — is a formula for failure.
However much they may cringe at the term, the liberals’ commitment to what might be described as a strategy of “soft” regime change in Iran is clear. In his latest Op-Ed, Cohen quotes Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund president Stephen Heintz as saying that he avoids “the phrase ‘diplomatic solution’ in conversations about Iran on Capitol Hill” in favor of “’political solution.’ Diplomacy just sounds too wimpy.”
For Heintz, it undoubtedly does. For the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has provided funding to Parsi’s NIAC to conduct “nonpolitical trainings” for Iranian oppositionists — just as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund supported efforts to encourage political change in the former Yugoslavia and color revolutions in former Soviet-bloc states.
(Also — and, we suspect, not coincidentally — the Rockefeller Brothers Fund underwrote Ali Ansari’s substantively flawed “scholarly” work to delegitimate the Islamic Republic’s 2009 election.)
We are all in favor of a “political solution.” But such a solution requires real rapprochement between the United States and Iran, based on American acceptance of the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity representing real (and legitimate) national interests.
It would seem that liberals are not any more inclined toward a genuine political solution than neoconservatives are.
Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and – from 2001 to 2003 – was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com.]
(Originally posted at Consortium News)