Why Does Anyone Trust The Leveretts?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 15, 2010

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I have written in the past about Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, the husband and wife team that passes itself off as being your go-to source concerning all things relating to Iranian politics, and Iran’s place in the world. Every time I read something new about the Leveretts, and their analysis regarding Iran, I wonder why anyone puts any stock whatsoever in what they say.

Via Jeffrey Goldberg, my wonderment increases:

. . . unlike the president, the Secretary of State, or any other American diplomats or officials, Leverett has actually scored a precious invitation to Tehran. “We do not have a visa,” Leverett explained to me in an email. “Which as I am sure you have heard is a cumbersome process.” Still, it’s quite a coup. Access equals influence in Washington, and the fact that Leverett gets to go to Tehran, an itinerary envied by policymakers and access-peddlers, underlines his status as one of the most important Iran experts in town.

The curious dance between Washington’s Iran experts and the foreign government whose actions they are supposedly analyzing has parallels in the ways that totalitarian governments like the Soviet Union and Mao’s China manipulated Western public opinion by only granting access to scholars and policy hands who would toe the party line. Similarly, the Iranian government today decides who in the West will be granted the kind of access that will allow them to speak with authority about the regime to Washington. Western scholars and policy wonks alike understand that access to the regime is a form of currency that can make you powerful, or rich, or both. Washington’s ambitious and talented, its romantic opportunists looking to attach themselves to a beautiful cause, and those eyeing fat commissions for opening Iran’s energy resources to U.S. companies, all see access to the Iranian regime as the biggest prize in the foreign policy game.

And now, a couple of obvious questions: Are the Leveretts skewing their analysis to favor the regime so that they continue to get the kind of plum invitations to travel to Iran that they received? Did the Leveretts skew their analysis from the beginning so that they could ingratiate themselves with the regime, thus making themselves “powerful, or rich, or both”?

The opposition camp has been critical of Leverett for his collaborations with Mohamed Marandi, director of Tehran University’s Institute for North American Studies and the son of Khamenei’s personal physician, who appears to have facilitated Leverett’s upcoming visit. “The University of Tehran is the institution which has applied for our visas,” Leverett explained to me.

Leverett was offended when I asked if the Revolutionary Guard had played a role in his invitation, and yet there’s little doubt that his co-author is personally and professionally close to the regime—and publicly justifies some of its most brutal actions. Since the June elections, Marandi has been the Ahmadinejad government’s key spokesperson in the English-language media, and he recently defended the regime’s sentencing opposition members to death. His true occupation may be even more unsavory. “He passes himself off as an academic, but he’s with the Ministry of Intelligence,” says Ramin Ahmadi, co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentary Center and a professor of medicine at Yale.

Perhaps, as the article points out, all of this was necessary so that Leverett could have access to people in the regime, thus allowing him to know what the regime was up to. But does Leverett really think that someone like Marandi will let him know of anything within Iran that might make the regime look bad? Does he not believe that it is possible Marandi–and others within the regime–are playing the Leveretts for saps?

Flynt Leverett, it should be added, is not exactly renowned for his professional competence:

. . . it was Leverett’s disagreements with [President George W. Bush, over Iran policy] that, in his account, compelled him, as he wrote in 2005, “to leave the administration.” However, as another former member of the Bush NSC staff explained, Leverett did not leave his post by choice. “The job of a director on the NSC staff is bureaucratic,” says the former Bush official. “If there’s a deputies’ meeting, you take notes. When you get a letter from a foreign government, you log it in and draft a response.” Leverett continually missed deadlines and misplaced documents, and the NSC Records office had a long list of his delinquencies. His office was notoriously messy—documents were strewn over chairs, windowsills, the floor, and piled high on his desk. For Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser and a famously well-organized “clean desk” type, repeatedly missing deadlines and losing important letters was simply not tolerable behavior for an NSC officer, and Leverett was told to leave.

And neither of the Leveretts should be lauded for their honesty:

Returning to the CIA briefly before retiring from government service in the spring of 2003, Leverett moved on to the Brookings Institution, and then the New America Foundation, as he began to reinvent himself as an Iran expert with the help of his wife. Hillary Mann Leverett claimed that after rotating back to the State Department from the White House in April 2003 she had received a fax from a Swiss diplomat acting as an intermediary on behalf of the Iranians, offering what the Leveretts would come to call the Grand Bargain. According to the Swiss fax, she said, the Islamic Republic would cease support for terrorist organizations, terminate its nuclear weapons program, and recognize Israel if the United States would in turn guarantee that it had no designs to topple the regime.

So why didn’t the Americans bite? As the Leveretts explained in a series of interviews and their own articles, including, most famously, a 2006 op-ed in the New York Times published with redactions ordered by the Bush White House, it was because of Bush and the neoconservatives, who intended to lead the United States to war again.

As the missed Grand Bargain became another proof of Bush’s incompetence, Leverett and his wife found themselves the center of a great deal of positive attention among reporters, talk-show hosts, and Democratic politicos. The couple was profiled in Esquire, and Flynt enjoyed a guest spot with Jon Stewart. The problem is that it wasn’t the neocons who dismissed the plausibility of the offer; rather it was Flynt Leverett’s putative allies, including then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage. Other staffers don’t remember it at all. As a former colleague on the NSC staff recalls, “this historical document arrives and Condi Rice and Stephen Hadley don’t remember it, and only Flynt does. It was either a concoction of the Swiss ambassador, or of the Swiss ambassador and the Leveretts together.”

Even as the legend of the Grand Bargain has been discredited, the tale—a narrative describing a sensible, realistic Iran eagerly courting a stubborn Washington, with the Leveretts in the middle of things—served its purpose. It not only identified the couple as critics of the Bush administration, it also certified them as experts about the Iranian regime—and as instruments through which the regime might influence Washington.

Back to the question that serves as the title for this post: Why does anyone trust the Leveretts?

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