In the lead-up to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. Congress this week, and the controversy it has engendered, CNN asked Hillary Mann Leverett to debate renowned Harvard Law School professor, celebrity defense attorney, and hawkish supporter of Israeli policies Alan Dershowitz, over two separate segments, on the merits of an Iran deal and the Obama Administration’s differences with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on this subject.
Hillary has worked in the Middle East and in U.S. policy making institutions (the National Security Council and State Department) for twenty-five years. From 2001-2003, she negotiated for the U.S. government directly with Iranian counterparts—including then Deputy Foreign Minister Javad Zarif—over Afghanistan, al-Qaida, and Iraq, in what were the most constructive and productive negotiations U.S. and Iranian officials had with each other since the 1979 revolution. In 2003, she drafted a ground-breaking memo to then Secretary of State Colin Powell advocating that the United States further engage the Islamic Republic in a “grand bargain” to deal with their areas of disagreement. In 2006, with her husband, Flynt Leverett, she again broke ground with an op-ed in the New York Times taking that case public: that, instead of targeting Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” America needed to strike a “grand bargain” with it. In 2013, they published the book, Going To Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Alan Dershowitz is a Harvard University emeritus professor of law, world-renowned celebrity attorney, and, according to his website, “Israel’s single most visible defender – the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion.” His most recent book is Terror Tunnels, The Case for Israel’s Just War Against Hamas.
It is important to note that the debate was extremely time limited and that Hillary, at times, had to make her points over Mr. Dershowitz’ screaming interruptions. Nevertheless, the debate aired over two days in America’s premier news network, in one of their most viewed and listened to time slots.
Here is an edited transcript of their debate:
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary of State John Kerry says it is too soon to judge a deal that would restrict Iran’s nuclear activities for at least ten years. But it’s not too soon for him to say the bottom line is that Iran won’t get nukes, I guess, for ten years and that raises the issue of whether or not this is a good move at all.
There are two very different sides to this we have both represented. Hillary Mann Leverett, CEO of STRATEGA, Middle East analyst, and co-author of Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran and Professor Alan Dershowitz, emeritus professor of Law at Harvard Law School and author of Terror Tunnels, The Case for Israel’s Just War Against Hamas.
We will start with the proposition that if the U.S. wants to make a deal, it should be a good thing. You represent that, Hillary, why as a citizen should I be happy about this deal?
HILLARY MANN LEVERETT, Going to Tehran:
First, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not going away—it is a critically important rising power, a huge hydrocarbon power, with a sophisticated, educated population—in some of the same ways the People’s Republic of China was a rising power in the early 1970s and just as then President Nixon came to understand that the United States, for its own interests, had to accept this rising power in Asia, the United States now needs to accept this pivotal and rising power in the Middle East.
It is imperative for the United States to do so now because, after a decade of counter-productive military adventures in the Middle East, our strategic position there is in free fall and we need a more constructive relationship with Iran to enable us to stop this strategically self-damaging pursuit of dominance in the region and instead pursue a balance of power approach that recognizes all of the important powers in the region and has constructive relationships with each of them.
CUOMO: So what is the counter, the basic theory there is that Iran is now like China was, do you agree, Professor?
ALAN DERSHOWITZ, Harvard Law School: Absolutely not, China is a rational calculating, secular government. Iran is a suicide nation. It’s sent thousands of its own children to die in the war against Iraq, with little tokens promising them paradise.
Rafsanjani, one of the former leaders, said if Iran gets nuclear weapons and bombs Israel, it will kill 3 million to 5 million Jews. Israel will retaliate to kill 10 million to 20 million Muslims, and the tradeoff would be worth it because it would destroy Israel and it would leave Islam untouched.
So the idea of comparing rational China to Iran, the greatest exporter of terrorism in the world is absurd. Iran is determined to get a nuclear weapon. There is no good resolution to this. We are talking about worse, worser and worsest.
This is a bad deal because it has a sunset provision. It allows Iran after ten years to develop nuclear weapons. Now if you believe The New York Times, in its editorial this morning, The New York Times says after the deal runs its course, Iran would be able to pursue nuclear enrichment for energy and medical purposes without constraints.
If you believe that, that Iran wants to simply pursue medical and energy purposes, you should favor this deal. But if you think Iran is going to cheat, if you think it already has cheated, for example the Iran resistance movement yesterday revealed there’s a secret hide-out facility called Laza Van 3.
They’re going to cheat their way into a nuclear bomb. It will be a game changer as President Obama acknowledged when he earlier said he would never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. He’s now that policy.
CUOMO: OK, so let’s leave the politics of flip-flopping aside and address the main point, which is you are giving the most dangerous weapon to someone who has proven again and again they want to do dangerous things, Hillary, how does that make sense?
LEVERETT: Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons, the entire U.S. national security and intelligence establishment and the entire Israeli national security and intelligence establishment say Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons and has not even taken a decision to do so—which is one reason why diplomacy is the most effective course here.
But Prime Minister Netanyahu, as Professor Dershowitz just repeated, has been telling us this canard—that Iran has or is pursuing nuclear weapons—for years. Two years ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu stood in front of the American public at AIPAC and gave Professor Dershowitz’s fact-free argument verbatim, that if you believe the Iranians are pursuing nuclear energy or medicine, I have a bridge to sell you–
CUOMO: Do you think Israel is lying about the Iranian threat?
LEVERETT: That is basically what the United States government is now saying. The White House spokesman came out and specifically said we are no longer sharing information about the negotiations with the Israelis because they are distorting it and putting out not accurate information.
Prime Minister Netenyahu and his friends here are destroying the U.S./Israel relationship for a canard, for something that is not true.
CUOMO: Look, the idea that Israel feels threatened by Iran is not a canard. The basis on which they feel threatened is what you’re speaking to, Professor, your point on that?
LEVERETT: Well —
CUOMO: Hold on, Hillary.
DERSHOWITZ: If you really think that Iran has no interest in developing nuclear weapons then you should, you don’t even need a deal. Just let them pursue their biological and medical facility. Everybody in the world, with any common sense, knows that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons.
Whether they have made the ultimate theological decision or not, is how many angels on the head of a pin. If out there you think Iran is not interested in developing nuclear weapons at all, then you should be on the side of my —
CUOMO: Susan Rice —
DERSHOWITZ: If you believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, they have to be stopped. President Obama said that. John Kerry has said that. Everybody has said that—that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons—except my distinguished opponent.
CUOMO: The thinking goes back and forth. The intel is soft about it, which makes it more confusing, let’s get where Susan Rice, the national security defense adviser, is on this. On this and as it relates to the Israeli prime minister. Let’s take a listen.
(Video Clip of) SUSAN RICE, National Security Advisor: What has happened over the last several weeks by virtue of the invitation that was issued, by the Speaker and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netenyahu two weeks in advance of his election is that on both sides, there has now been injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s, it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.
CUOMO: All right, so that is obviously a segue way into how this is going to affect U.S./Israeli relations, which could not be more important and vital to everything that’s going on in the region and, obviously, to domestic interests as well. Final point, we have one minute. Hillary, one point on that?
LEVERETT: Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters are peddling a false case that could get us into yet another strategically damaging war—just as they did with Iraq and other places in the Middle East. What the Obama administration is now doing, in an unprecedented way, is calling a spade a spade by saying Netanyahu and his supporters here in the United States are putting out a false story, which will lead the U.S. to yet another war.
CUOMO: That’s your point. What’s your final point, Professor?
DERSHOWITZ: Well, that’s what Neville Chamberlin argued, that it was a false narrative that Hitler really meant what he said. I have to take very seriously what Iran has said, what they’ve threatened to destroy Israel. They’ve threatened to destroy the United States. We’ve discovered secret facilities for nuclear weapons.
You must believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and if they are trying to develop nuclear weapons, there can’t be a sunset provision. They have to be permanently stopped from doing so. This is a bad deal.
CUOMO: Hillary Mann Leverett, Professor Alan Dershowitz, thank you very much, two very intelligent people who understand the situation laying it out for you. Now you decide. Let us know.
Well, President Obama and dozens of fellow Democrats do not like it, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to Washington for a speech to Congress [tomorrow]. How will this affect U.S./Israeli relations? We’ll have a debate on that next.
(Video clip of) SUSAN RICE, National Security Advisor: There has now been injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate; I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.
ALISYN CAMEROTA CNN ANCHOR: Well, that was National Security Adviser Susan Rice earlier this week, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech before Congress, quote, “destructive.” Now the White House plans to send Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power to a pro-Israel lobbying conference. Will that ease the tensions?
Let’s debate this. Let’s bring in Hillary Mann Leverett. She’s a former National Security Council official under presidents Clinton and Bush. She’s also the co-author of Going to Tehran. And Alan Dershowitz, emeritus professor of law at Harvard Law School and the author of Terror Tunnels: The Case for Israel’s Just War Against Hamas.
Hillary, let me start with you. Do you agree with Susan Rice’s assessment that Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit will be destructive to the relationship between U.S. and Israel?
HILLARY MANN LEVERETT, AUTHOR, GOING TO TEHRAN: U.S.-Israel relations are certainly at an historic low point. But in fact, it may be a clarifying moment, a very important moment. It may not be quite as destructive as the rhetoric out there portends it to be.
I think it will be important to clarify that Prime Minister Netanyahu holds a position that is essentially fact-free, that U.S. officials have described on background to the Washington Post as “fictional,” that Netanyahu is living in a “fantasyland.”
CAMEROTA: Meaning that you don’t believe that Iran is as close to getting nuclear weapons as he will say they are.
MANN LEVERETT: It’s not just me—it’s almost the entire Israeli national security establishment, 200 Israeli generals came out this week to say that Netanyahu’s claims are not accurate. It’s also the White House spokesman saying Netanyahu’s claims are not accurate. It’s the entire U.S. national security establishment, all 16 of our intelligence agencies saying Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons…
MANN LEVERETT: … saying that Netanyahu is not accurate. What is critically important here is that the administration is saying that the Israelis and Netanyahu, in particular—and Kerry said this to Congress—cannot come here yet again, as Netanyahu did in 2002 on the eve of the Iraq war, to give us a false story that will help lead us into war. They’re saying we’re not going to do that again.
CAMEROTA: OK. Alan, do you agree with that assessment?
ALAN DERSHOWITZ, AUTHOR,TERROR TUNNELS: Absolutely not. This is, at bottom, not about the Israeli-American relation. It’s a great constitutional and foreign policy debate about whether we trust Iran, whether we are prepared to allow them to become a nuclear weapon power. This is the most extensive exporter of terrorism in the world today.
And it’s not between Israel and the United States. It’s between the Obama administration and Congress, Senator Menendez and other leading Democrats. The Washington Post editorialized against this deal. Today David Brooks has a brilliant article in the New York Times calling it a bad deal, saying it’s a bad bet, because it accepts my distinguished opponent’s view that Iran is not really trying to develop nuclear weapons, that it can be brought into the fold of the western world. It’s a very bad bet.
It’s the bet that Chamberlain made in 1938 when he said that he could deal with Hitler. All Hitler wanted was Sudetenland and if we give them that, there will be peace in our time.
CAMEROTA: But Alan, do you…
DERSHOWITZ: This is a great debate that shouldn’t be reduced to a personality dispute between Netanyahu and Obama.
CAMEROTA: Sure. But do you agree that it is possible that Prime Minister Netanyahu has overhyped some of his claims about what Iran is capable of?
DERSHOWITZ: Absolutely not. Iran is capable of and wants to develop nuclear weapons. Everybody knows that. There is a dispute among intelligence communities. All intelligence communities have disputes about how close they are.
If you’re Israel, and you’ve been told that Iran’s goal is to destroy the nation state of the Jewish people, you want to always err on the side of caution. And the worst you can say about the Israeli government is that it is erring on the side of caution. It cannot take a risk to its own survival—a risk that the United States seems to be prepared to take.
It’s a bad deal, particularly the sunset provision, which allows Iran to become a nuclear weapon power within ten years, which really means six years, which means the end of nuclear proliferation. Saudis will try to get nuclear weapons. This is bad deal. And…
CAMEROTA: OK. Hold on, Alan.
DERSHOWITZ: Everybody should be listening to Prime Minister Netanyahu and not walking out on his speech. That’s a terrible mistake.
CAMEROTA: OK, Hillary, Professor Dershowitz has just laid out the case for, you know, they want nuclear weapons at some point. So why not fight against that?
MANN LEVERETT: First of all because it’s a completely fact-free case. There is no dispute among the intelligence communities. The entire U.S. intelligence community and the entire Israeli intelligence community, all of them say, all of them hold that Iran has not even taken a decision to pursue nuclear weapons.
Now the problem with Professor Dershowitz’ case, which is critical…
DERSHOWITZ: That’s nonsense. That’s just false.
MANN LEVERETT: The critical problem with his case that is absolutely critical, is that he wants us to take his word for it. He wants us to take Prime Minister Netanyahu’s word for it, rather than neutral monitors and inspectors on the ground.
This is the perilous course people like this helped put us on with the invasion of Iraq. Instead of taking inspectors and monitors credible information…
DERSHOWITZ: Israel was against — Israel was against the invasion of Iraq.
CAMEROTA: OK, so…
MANN LEVERETT: What this means is that instead of having objective information that we can all evaluate, we have to take the word of one Israeli prime minister, over the facts and case of even his own intelligence community. This is very dangerous, and that’s why the Obama administration…
DERSHOWITZ: That’s just not true.
MANN LEVERETT: … is risking such a rift with Israel, with its erstwhile ally. That’s why they’re taking this big domestic political risk.
CAMEROTA: OK, hold on, Hillary.
DERSHOWITZ: That’s just not true.
CAMEROTA: Alan, is there a rift between Prime Minister Netanyahu and his intelligence community?
DERSHOWITZ: No. One of the people running against him who is campaigning against him is the former head of the Mossad, who has always been at odds with him. But everybody in the Israeli establishment, particularly those in the know, believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. And that they will get nuclear weapons under this deal.
Don’t try to pose this as the Israeli intelligence against Netanyahu. The vast majority of Israeli intelligence is against this deal. They’re against Iran developing nuclear weapons. Almost everybody except my distinguished opponent here believes that Iran has already decided to develop nuclear weapons.
And here’s my offer to you out there. If you believe her and believe that Iran has peaceful intentions and wants to develop nuclear energy for energy and medical purposes, then accept the deal. But if you believe as I do and almost everybody in the intelligence community that Iran is determined to get nuclear weapons, then reject this deal…
DERSHOWITZ: … which has a sunset provision and will allow the greatest exporter of terrorism to become a nuclear weapon exporter of terrorism…
DERSHOWITZ: … with ICBMs that can reach the shores of the United States.
CAMEROTA: Alan, Hillary, thank you for the debate. Obviously, we will be watching what happens in Congress with Benjamin Netanyahu next week. Thanks so much for being on CNN’s NEW DAY.
—Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett