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Hillary Mann-Leverett and Flynt Leverett: American policy based on hegemony in the Middle East – a major regional player not within the US system of supported states is a target

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GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Hi. This is Gareth Porter for The Real News Network in Baltimore. Welcome to part two of our interview with Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett are the authors of a new book, Going to Tehran, which challenges all the conventional wisdom about Iran and its nuclear program. They were both insiders in the U.S. national security state. They both worked as senior directors on Iran for the National Security Council staff, and then both worked for the State Department. But they quit the U.S. government in 2003 in disagreement over U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Flynt and Hillary, I’m interested in hearing from you about the way in which you have bashed the conventional wisdom in Washington on Iran and its nuclear program. What are the two things that you have found most, shall we say, outrageous about the conventional wisdom on Iran?

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT, FMR. NSC AND STATE DEPARTMENT STAFFER: There are two things. One I would characterize as the “mad mullah” myth, that the mullahs in Tehran in Iran are irrational, immature, hellbent on pursuing nuclear weapons to become history’s first suicide mission to bomb Israel.

In fact, if you analyze, if you talk to Iranians inside Iran as we have–Iranian national security officials, thinkers, academics, analysts–Iran has developed and pursued, implemented a highly rational foreign policy that is really actually not focused on hard power. It’s focused mostly on soft power. It’s making alliances with both ethnic and sectarian groups in the bordering countries and using its rhetoric, using its belief in, particularly, pan-Muslim causes and defiance of the United States and Israel to galvanize regional publics to align with it, to prevent those countries, neighboring countries around Iran, from attacking it.

Iran hasn’t invaded anybody. Iran hasn’t sanctioned anyone. It is using primarily a soft-power strategy in its foreign policy to dramatically change the balance of power in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Lebanon, even in Egypt, to its favor. It’s something that it is doing primarily through soft power, not through hard power. It’s not this kind of “mad mullah” irrational strategy.

FLYNT LEVERETT, FMR. NSC AND STATE DEPARTMENT STAFFER: I think the other big myth that we try to take on in our book–and we get in a certain amount of trouble for doing this–is that the Islamic Republic is fundamentally illegitimate, it is a system that is so despised by its own population that it is in imminent danger of overthrow. Foreign policy pundits, Iranian expatriates, others have been telling Americans this for more than 30 years, virtually since the Islamic Republic was born out of the Iranian Revolution, and it has basically proven false over a 33 year period.

What we try to show in our book is that for most Iranians living in their country, living in Iran, the Islamic Republic is in fact a legitimate system with all of its flaws and faults. It is still a legitimate system for most of the people living under it. And even those who want that system to evolve, to reform, to change in very significant ways, at the end of the day, even most of them still want it to be an Islamic Republic of Iran. And that’s a reality that the United States still needs to come to terms with.

PORTER: Let’s talk a little bit about the Iranian nuclear program in particular. You both give the reader the strong view that the Iranians are not interested in having nuclear weapons. Could you explain to us why you feel that you can make that kind of judgment, which is pretty much outside the mainstream, in terms of news media for sure?

H. MANN LEVERETT: Part of it is just evidence. You know, after the invasion of Iraq and there being no weapons of mass destruction there, we think it is incumbent on people to really look at the evidence, and there is no evidence that the Iranians have nuclear weapons or are pursuing nuclear weapons. Even the American CIA and the Israeli Mossad agree with that. The question is just whether or not the Iranians would decide to do so. And many inside the United States and in Israel think that of course the Iranians have to want to do this.

But this is what we think is really the value in our book. We have had the opportunity to sit down and actually listen to what Iranian officials, diplomats, strategists, analysts, academics inside Iran have to say about what they think about nuclear weapons and what that means for strategy. And as opposed to, for example, the North Koreans or the Pakistanis or the Indians or the Israelis, Iranian national security thinkers and analysts and officials have a very clearly well thought out idea of how harmful nuclear weapons would be for Iran’s national security strategy for its defense.

Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t want a full, thorough nuclear program. They absolutely want the science and the technology that comes off that. And they want the soft power that they derive from pursuing a nuclear program under full international rights, their sovereign rights, their treaty rights under the NPT. They want the soft power they glean from that from doing it in defiance of the United States and Israel. But to say–.

F. LEVERETT: The United States, which is trying to rewrite the Non-Proliferation Treaty to say Iran can’t do safeguarded enrichment.

H. MANN LEVERETT: Yeah. But when we’ve heard people from the president to the foreign minister to others in Iran talk about how they compare their situation where they don’t have nuclear weapons to other countries that have or had nuclear weapons, like the Soviet Union, Israel, and South Africa, they look at those three states–the Soviet Union being no more; apartheid South Africa being no more; Israel the Iranians, as clearly delineated from their rhetoric, think time is not on the side for the Israeli government–that those three systems, their fatal flaw was the pursuit of nuclear weapons, which push each one of those systems to overreach, to take decisions, to dominate their neighbors that was essentially the key to their undoing.

PORTER: Let me turn to the question of the U.S. side of the equation on the Iran nuclear issue. What are the interests, what are the incentives that you think have been driving U.S. policy toward the Iran nuclear program? How do you explain the–.

F. LEVERETT: I think the big one goes back to what we think ultimately drives, on a bipartisan basis, across Democratic and Republican administrations, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which is this desire for hegemony, not just to be militarily preeminent, but to be able to use that military preeminence to coerce and leverage political outcomes to subordinate major states in the region to a U.S.-managed, U.S.-dominated political and security order in the Middle East. And from that perspective, the one thing that the United States can’t abide, can’t tolerate is an independent power. This is why we had so much trouble historically with Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser. Once we managed to flip Egypt under Sadat into the American camp, that was fine.

But now we face this Islamic Republic of Iran, which for 30 years has built its foreign policy on the idea of independence, not anti-Americanism. Iranian officials say at the highest levels they would welcome better relations with the U.S. But that, from their perspective, can only happen on a basis of balance, of mutual respect, and American acceptance of the Islamic Republic. And that, from their perspective, no American administration has been willing to offer them, and that’s because of this drive for dominance.

H. MANN LEVERETT: And the piece with the nuclear program which is so interesting is that we could essentially at this point [incompr.] ten years later as the Iranians have pursued their nuclear program, we could essentially live with Iran having its nuclear program in some ways, as long as it’s bombable, if it’s in Natanz and we can bomb it. What we can’t tolerate is if they fortify it in a bunker where we can’t bomb it. The same kind of program, same centrifuges, same level of enrichment,–

F. LEVERETT: The same inspectors.

H. MANN LEVERETT: –the same inspectors. What we can’t tolerate is that they would be able to have independent authority over their own nuclear program, that they would [incompr.] able to have a real deterrent strategy to use against the United States and Israel. As long as we can bomb it, maybe reluctantly along the road we’ll let them have it; but if we can’t bomb it, they can’t have it.

PORTER: Sounds like a very perverse policy. Let me ask you both,–


PORTER: –you were in the Bush administration at a time when this issue of the Iranian nuclear program was still very much–very different from what it is now, when they had no enrichment going on, when they still had not enriched a single bit of uranium. Can you give us an insight into what the Bush administration really was trying to do with regard to the Iranian nuclear program? What was their aim? What was their modus operandi with regard to that?

F. LEVERETT: I think there is both an Iran-specific goal and a more global goal. The Bush administration became convinced that there is–they would call it a loophole in the NPT. I would call it just the text of the NPT that everyone, including the United States, agreed on. But the Bush administration wanted to try and rewrite the NPT so that states, non-weapon states would no longer be able to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. I mean, it’s not just Iran that has done this. You know, Japan, Canada, all sorts of Western countries do it. Among non-Western states, Brazil and South Africa, countries that gave up nuclear weapons programs in the course of democratization and joined the NPT as non-weapon states, they insist on their right to continue enriching uranium. But the Bush administration wanted to find a way to take that away, basically to, you know, maintain American dominance in this sphere by removing the possibility of non-Western states developing indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.

In the Iranian case specifically, this is very important because as the United States wants to dominate the Middle East, the one most consistent challenger to American and Israeli hegemonic ambitions in the region is the Islamic Republic of Iran. And you certainly, from an American perspective, couldn’t let the Islamic Republic establish its own independent, even if internationally monitored, nuclear capability.

PORTER: Thank you, Flynt and Hillary.

F. LEVERETT: Thank you.

PORTER: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.


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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.

Flynt Leverett (born March 6, 1958 in Memphis, Tennessee) is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. and a professor at the Pennsylvania State University School of International Affairs. From March 2002 to March 2003, he served as the senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council (NSC).

Prior to serving on the NSC, he was a counterterrorism expert on the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department, and before that he served as a CIA senior analyst for eight years. Since leaving government service, Leverett served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy before becoming the director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. Ms. Leverett has more than 20 years of academic, legal, business, diplomatic, and policy experience working on Middle Eastern issues. In the George W. Bush Administration, she worked as Director for Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council, Middle East expert on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and Political Advisor for Middle East, Central Asian and African issues at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. From 2001-2003, she was one of a small number of U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida and Iraq. In the Clinton Administration, Leverett also served as Political Advisor for Middle East, Central Asian and African issues for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Associate Director for Near Eastern Affairs at the National Security Council, and Special Assistant to the Ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and a Watson Fellowship, and in 1990-1991 worked in the U.S. embassies in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt and Israel, and was part of the team that reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait after the first Gulf War.