Since mid-November, we have been on the road a lot—including a trip to Iran and two trips to China—and took a hiatus from posting. With the turn of the (Western) New Year and our return home (at least for a while), we resume again.
In the course of our most recent visit to Tehran, in late November 2014, we sat for a number of interviews with various Iranian media organizations. The most extensive was conducted by Mashregh. Mashregh published its interview with us, in Farsi, at the end of December, see here. We are pleased to publish it in English below.
Our trip to Tehran spanned the days just before and just after the November 24 announcement of yet another extension in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. (Once again, we are grateful to the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies for inviting us.) Not surprisingly, the Mashregh interview starts with the negotiations, the impact of the Republican victory in the 2014 U.S. congressional elections on prospects for a final deal (and for the enactment of further Iran-related secondary sanctions by the United States), and the diplomatic influence of Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the interview goes on to consider a wide range of other topics, including: how the United States is (not) coping with the emergence of a more multipolar world; President Barak Obama’s letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei and Obama’s overall weakness as president; how our own views about Iran have evolved, both during our service in the U.S. government and afterward; why it is so important that the United States not only deal with the Islamic Republic as a rational foreign policy actor but accept it as a legitimate political order; and our role in the American debate over Iran’s 2009 presidential election and what was at stake in this episode.
Q: I would like to start with the nuclear negotiation, the extension of the Geneva deal, the Republicans coming to take control of the Congress, the Obama administration and congressional opposition as an obstacle to reaching a nuclear agreement, the diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1, the extension of the talks in Vienna, and the positive and negative reactions to this in Iran. How do you assess the situation?
Hillary: I think it’s not accurate to put Congress as an obstacle to what would otherwise be a smoother process. I think one of the problems was that the Obama administration decided to work with the Congress. Congress is never going to agree; it doesn’t matter whether it is Democrat or Republican. The leading sponsor of sanctions against Iran is a Democrat, Senator Menendez from New Jersey. He is completely in favor of sanctions. It’s not so much the Democrats or Republicans. The problem is that there was not a decision on the U.S. side that the United States, for its own interests, needed a deal with Iran and that the United States would do what was necessary to get a deal, like what President Nixon did with China in the 1970s. Nixon decided—over the opposition of Congress, over the opposition of the anti-China lobby (which was very strong, like the pro-Israeli lobby today)—that the United States, for its own interests, needed a better relationship with China, and he went and got it. That’s what he did. With regard to Iran, a decision like that has clearly not been taken on the American side. I thought in particular that it was a very bad sign, the night before the most recent extension in negotiations was announced, that President Obama spoke to the American public only about the benefits of a deal for Iran—that Iran would have the chance to rejoin the international community, that it would be good for Iran, this country with 77 million people, to come back into the international community. The issue, for an American president, is not to do Iran a favor. The issue for an American president is that, when it is in America’s interests to have a deal, then the American president should do what he needs to do to get the deal. That, to me, is the fundamental problem here.
Flynt: I absolutely agree with that. Fundamentally, the reason we didn’t have a deal is because the United States keeps insisting that, as part of a deal, Iran must dismantle some significant portion of its nuclear infrastructure. Maybe the number of centrifuges that the United States is willing to tolerate has going up. But, as I understand the current US position, the United States is still asking Iran to dismantle about half of its operating centrifuges. Iran rejects this. The Iranian positions is very well grounded in the NPT, in international law. As I understand it, the Iranian position is that Iran would be prepared to limit the growth of its centrifuge infrastructure for some period of time, but Iran is not going to shrink this infrastructure to satisfy the United States and, at some point in the foreseeable future, Iran wants to be able to start growing this infrastructure again, under international safeguards. If the Obama administration were prepared to work out a deal on that basis, I think there could be a deal on the nuclear issue in a matter of weeks. Technical experts could work out various details and you would have a deal. The reason you don t have a deal is because the United States still thinks it is in a position in which it can dictate the terms for a deal. The language in the United States is still, “How many centrifuges should the United States allow Iran to have? It seems to us that, at this point, Iran is not going to accept the United States allowing Iran to have some number of centrifuges. That’s why we don’t have a deal. Now the Republicans are going to control the senate. Is that going to be a further obstacle to progress? Yes, I think it will be. What Hillary said is absolutely right—that there is broad bipartisan support for sanctions in the Congress for a new sanctions bill. But the Obama administration has been able to hold off a new sanctions bill because the outgoing Senate Majority Leader, Senator Reid (a Democrat from Nevada) never put the bill on the schedule for a vote. Because if it were ever put to a vote there would be a strong bipartisan majority in the Senate in favor of the bill. The big difference now is that Senator Reid will no longer be the majority leader. His replacement will be a Republican who has already said publicly that the Republicans will schedule a vote on a new sanctions bill early in 2015, after they take control of the Senate in January. They will schedule a vote on a new sanctions bill and, if it actually comes to a vote, there will be a bipartisan majority in favor of it.
Q: Despite this, does Obama have the power to hold off the imposition of new sanctions, and will Congress resist him?
Flynt: It would be a fight. It would be real fight. President Obama said that, while the Joint Plan of Action was being implemented, if Congress passed a new sanctions bill, he would veto it. Given the terms of the Joint Plan, he really had to say that. But he never faced the issue because Senator Reid made sure the bill never came up for a vote. Now that bill is going to come up for vote. Will Obama, when the bill passes, veto it? And then, after he vetoes it, will he be prepared to work very hard to get enough democrats in the Senate to help him sustain his veto? Will he be able to persuade enough of them not to vote again in favor of the bill, not to vote to override his veto. In our system, if Congress passes a law the president can veto it, but then congress can vote on it again and, if there is not just a majority but a two-thirds majority in favor of the bill, then it becomes law over the president’s veto. How hard is Obama willing to work to block a new Iran sanctions bill? First of all to veto that bill, and then to see how he can sustain the veto. I think it could be a real battle.
Q: Saudi Foreign Minister visited in the last round of talks in Vienna and met with John Kerry. And nothing came of the talks but an extension of the negotiations. What is your assessment of the role of Saudi Arabia?
Hillary: There were two meetings. They also met in Paris. Secretary Kerry coordinates very closely with Prince Saud al-Faysal and with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israael. I think the importance is for American domestic politics. The Obama administration wants to show American domestic audiences that they are respecting the interests of these longstanding U.S. allies, and that the United States will not sign a deal with Iran going beyond the interests of these allies. Kerry and the Obama administration thought it was important to show that the Israelis and Saudis are satisfied, rather than doing something that would anger them.
Q: About the recent struggles between America and Russia, is this confrontation of two countries between the two countries a move to a new system and the formation of a bipolar world—or a multipolar world, with a view toward China and other emerging powers—and toward a new Cold War?
Flynt: I would be more inclined to put it in the frame of moving from American-led unipolarity to a more multipolar world. I think both China and Russia have wanted to see movement toward a more multipolar world for some time, but each of them has had its own interests in what they see as positive and productive relations with the United States. But now US policy toward both Russia and China is accelerating efforts by these countries to move even more rapidly toward a more multipolar world. The United States, as a declining unipolar power, is trying desperately to hold on to more power than it can sustain. In the process, it is doing more and more things that impinge on core Russian interests, core Chinese interests. I think that both Russia and China have to calculate a balance in their foreign policy–to what extent do they seek to maintain a cooperative relationship with the United States and to what extent to they try to move the world toward this multipolar condition. Now, both China and Russia are tilting more and more toward the promotion of multipolarity. U.S. policy toward Iran is part of that dynamic. But U.S. policy toward Russia leaves fewer and fewer Russian believing that, at this point, Russia has a serious option to cooperate with the United States. Likewise, Chinese are increasingly concerned that the United States is trying to contain China as a legitimately influential player, in Asia and globally, and that the United States wants to try and reassert its hegemony in Asia. I think that U.S. foreign policy has really accelerated those trends.
Hillary: I think it reflects not having a real strategy, along with an inability to think about how issues connect. So, to look at U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine, to look at U.S. policy toward China or Iran—U.S. policymakers do not think about how these issues connect and overlap. What are the tradeoffs: if you want to sanction Russia over Ukraine, how can you expect Russia to work with you on Iran? There is no strategy for how the United States wants to position itself in a changing world. I think that this is due basically to a refusal to accept that the world is changing. Instead, the United States pretends that it can continue as the world’s sole superpower. American elites persist in arguing, based on ideas of American primacy and American exceptionalism, that there is just something about the United States that will keep it the greatest country in the world. This is a deep strategic problem. It’s not just President Obama or his foreign policy. It is deep in American culture, and is reflected in many ways—for example, in how Americans tell themselves that the United States won the Cold War, that we defeated the Soviet Union, and that this is because of American exceptionalism. Instead, the United States needs to accept that the world is changing.
While we were writing our book, Going to Tehran, we came to think that the United States was in a similar situation in the 1960s as it is in today. When Nixon came to office, the United States was facing strategic catastrophe in Asia. We were stuck in Vietnam, with tens of thousands of Americans killed. Tens of thousands had also been killed during the Korean War. The dollar was going down, and the economy was declining. We didn’t have enough money to continue these wars. The situation between black Americans and white Americans in the United States was bad; there were riots everywhere. America was in a real crisis at the end of the 1960s. President Nixon was able to say to American public that the United States had to prioritize, that it needed to stop pursuing hegemony in Asia. Pursuing hegemony in Asia was working against American interests, and that’s why Nixon went to China. China didn’t give the United States anything. Not a single centrifuge, and not anything else. But President Nixon made it clear that the United States needed to realign relations with China so that America could withdraw from Vietnam and rebuild its credibility and strategic standing. In our book, we argue that the same kind of leadership is needed to remake American policy toward Iran.
Having a better relationship with Iran doesn’t mean that the United States will become pro-Iranian or that it would take sides in Iranian domestic politics. It means that, if the United States can have a more normal relationship with Iran, then Iran can rise as a normal power in its region along with Saudi Arabia and Israel and Turkey and that these regional powers could balance among themselves. There would be normal balancing in the Middle East—which means that, while the United States might not leave entirely, it wouldn’t be using military force in or against every country from Libya to Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan to Iran to Saudi Arabia. The United States has a lot of interests in the Middle East, but those interests are not well served by having a large military presence everywhere. We argue in our book that this is the kind of policy that the United States needs to pursue today—to accept Iranian power so that Iran can rise with other regional powers.
Q: A former intelligence minister and current advisor to President Rouhani (Ali Younesi) has said that Obama is the weakest president in the U.S. history. How much do you agree with this view?
Hillary: In the United States there are more and more comparisons being drawn between President Obama and President Carter. A lot of people look at President Carter after he left the presidency and see him as a good person who has done a lot of humanitarian things. But while he was president, Carter was seen as unable to set priorities and to focus on what was really in America’s interests. He was also unable to work with Congress. So a lot of people today see a similarity between Carter’s presidency—which is not widely seen as a strong or successful presidency—and Obama’s presidency.
Flynt: I don’t know whether Obama is the weakest president in American history, but I think he has proven to be a very weak president. We expect Obama to disappoint those who oppose him. What is really striking about Obama is how many of his supporters are disappointed with him on a wide range of issues.
Q: The American president, in a move unprecedented since the Islamic Revolution, has written three letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader and has requested further cooperation from Iran. What is your view of Obama’s letters to the Iranian Leader? Are these signs of Obama’s weakness and the ineffectiveness of America’s regional policy?
Flynt: It is a weakness. Obama is not the first president to do this, but it is a weakness. There is a reluctance in the United States to accept the Islamic Republic as a system—I know you like the word Nezam—to accept the Islamic Republic as a system with a constitution. There is a Leader with particular responsibilities, there is an elected president with particular responsibilities, there is a Majlis that has its responsibilities, and so on. There is always a sense in the United States that the U.S. government can find some part of the Iranian system which it can work with to get what it wants, and that part of the system can somehow work around the other parts. This never works out well for the United States, but the United States keeps trying. I think that’s part of what is going on with President Obama’s letter to Ayatollah Khamanei. We obviously don’t know directly what was in the letter; we know only what was reported in the American media about the contents. But, if those reports are reasonably accurate, it also underscores just how delusional the American approach is. To me, Obama’s letter to Ayatollah Khemeni essentially says, OK, if Iran will make concessions on the nuclear issue, if it will compromise its sovereignty on the nuclear issue, that the United States will allow Iran to take part in U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria that Iran has already assessed to be a bad idea. There is a certain detachment from reality in a message like that: make a compromise on something you really care about, so that you can be part of a project you have already said you are not going to be a part of. We will not speculate on Ayatollah Khamenei’s reaction if that’s the kind of letter he got. But, if I received a letter like that, I would be really wondering about the strategic logic behind U.S. policy.
There is the book, Going to Tehran, and there is the story behind this book. Have you always had the same opinion about Iran or have your views changed?
Hillary: We both worked as Middle East experts in the U.S. government for about 20 years. Yet we had never met an Iranian from the Islamic Republic who supported the Islamic Republic. We had learned about (even from our best “experts” and best universities), read about, come to know about Iran only through the prism of expatriate Iranians who had left Iran during the revolution or during the war. We never really questioned this view until about a year before the September 11 attacks, when I was assigned by the State Department to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. I was a Middle East expert and was assigned to cover Middle East issues. But I was also given Afghanistan, because nobody in the U.S. government cared about Afghanistan at the time and I was both relatively junior and, I think, the only woman at the U.S. Mission at the time. So I was “stuck” with Afghanistan. But it was my good fortune, because the UN Representative Lakhdar Brahimi had a very good idea—to bring Afghanistan’s six neighbors (which, of course, include Iran) together with the United States and Russia to form a contact group called the “6+2.”
When I initially joined the contact group, I assumed that the delegate from Pakistan was going to be my ally, because Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been traditional allies of the United States for the past 20 years. But, as I started to talk to the delegate from Pakistan, I realized that he was a supporter of the Taliban and bin Laden; he would refer to the capital of Afghanistan as Kandahar, rather than Kabul.
Then there was the Iranian delegate. In U.S. law, American officials were not allowed to say “Hello” to Iranian officials. We were not allowed to engage them—except if you were in a multilateral working group on an issue that has nothing to so with U.S.-Iranian relations. This only happens at the United Nations, where both Iran and the United States could be talking about peacekeeping or economics or something else. So it was OK for me to talk to Iranian officials, because it was not about the United States and Iran, it was about Afghanistan.
The discussions were enlightening, because the Iranian official was very well educated about Afghanistan, very well educated about Central Asia. It started off that way. And then I realized that not only is he very educated and understands the issue in a very sophisticated way, but his understanding is very similar to mine. I did not have the knowledge he had (he had much more knowledge), but his view of Afghanistan, his view of geopolitics in the Middle East and Central Asia was much more similar to mine than the view of the delegate from Pakistan, who was supposed to be my ally. So we started to talk a lot about Afghanistan and to coordinate some of our positions, because they were so similar.
Then the terrorist attacks happened on September 11. My colleagues and I at the U.S. Mission were about to be evacuated from our building. In the course of my conversations with my Iranian colleague, I had told him that my sister worked at the World Trade Center, which had been bombed. In the chaos, my colleague called from the Iranian Mission to ask about my sister—it turned out that she was OK—and to say how terrible this was and that this is what we have been working on—the growing terrorism threat coming from al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan. He was sure that there would be a condemnation from Tehran, and a few days later it was shocking for me and for many Americans when the Supreme Leader condemned terrorism wherever it happened in the world—including in Washington and New York. I wrote back to the State Department that this was a very important development and that we should intensify the talks with the Iranians in New York because we really had common interests. So, from what had started as just one person (me) talking to an Iranian counterpart, a couple of people joined me from Washington and then more people joined my Iranian colleague from Iran. We talked together about Afghanistan over the next two years. I think that this dialogue helped to keep the situation in Afghanistan in relatively good shape from 2001 to 2003. After that, though, we stopped talking and U.S. policy, in my view, became much more militarized in Afghanistan. In these discussions about Afghanistan, I had the opportunity for the first time to hear, from an Iranian perspective, how the Islamic Republic sees itself in its neighborhood—the threats that it faces, the interests that it has. And I didn’t hear this from the perspective of an expatriate Iranian or someone who wants to see the Islamic Republic overthrown. This was really enlightening for me.
I was strongly supportive of continuing and expanding these talks. I was asked to come to the White House to work on Afghanistan policy and Iran policy for the National Security Council, but there were different people with different views at the White House. Fortunately for me, Flynt was also at the White House. So we became a team, but we had a lot of opposition. The first opposition was with the Axis of Evil speech, which I was not told about even though I was the person in charge of Iran policy. It was a big shock and I started to question how can I still work for the U.S. government? Eventually, Flynt and I both resigned in protest.
Initially, when we moved out of the U.S. government, we thought we should try to educate Americans about how Iran looks at the world, about areas of cooperation and the potential for cooperation. So we started to write about that. Not anything about Iran’s domestic politics, just foreign policy. Our initial idea was that the United States could work with Iran on what we called a “grand bargain.” Our idea was that, because U.S. and Iranian interests were similar, if the United States gave Iran a chance, Iran could join with the United States to be part of the pro-American political and security order. That was our initial idea.
But our idea evolved from there, because we started to see that the pro-American security order is not very good for the United States. The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and Israel is not healthy for the United States. It would not make sense to try to get Iran to be part of that.
So we started to look at what makes Iran important. We had a feeling that we did not understand that as clearly as we do today. We do not take a position on Iranian domestic politics or try to say that the system here is the most perfect, fantastic thing in the world. But we recognize that, after a history of western and Russian penetration and domination, Iran has been able to develop an indigenous, self-made system. We started to look at how that self-made model has influence beyond Iran’s borders in a way that the Shah’s Iran never did. Why does the Islamic Republic have more influence on its neighbors than the Shah’s Iran? We concluded that it must be something about the domestic system, something that has enabled this system not only to survive for 35 years but to have influence beyond Iran. We spent a lot of time reading Imam Khomeini’s lectures in Najaf, going over a lot of his speeches, which we thought were very important. We wanted to bring some of Imam Khomeini’s ideas to an American audience, and to explain some of the Islamic Republic’s achievements in healthcare, in education, even in gender issues. In the United States, the idea is that women are garbage here, but if you look at jobs and education, the reality here is a very different story. We wanted to bring that to American audiences as well. Our book is first and foremost about American interests. And we argue that, instead of having the false idea that Iran is a terrible state that treats everybody terribly that is going to collapse tomorrow, the United States needs to recognize the real foundations of legitimacy here. It’s important for the United States to accept that and to accept Iran as an independent power, not be afraid of it, and to embrace Iran’s independence as a way of having a more stable balance of power.
Q: In your book, you talk about three myths about Iran. Please explain how lobbies and the American media foster these myths about Iran?
Flynt: The idea of three myths was a way of trying to help readers think critically about a seemingly infinite number of bad ideas in the United States about Iran. The first myth is the irrationality myth—that the Islamic Republic is this ideologically driven system that cannot think about foreign policy in terms of national interests; we really wanted to challenge that. The second myth is the illegitimacy myth: that the Islamic Republic is an illegitimate political system with no popular support and is always at risk of being overthrown (if not today, then maybe by next week); we wanted to challenge that myth, too. The third myth is what we called the “isolation myth”—that the Islamic Republic does not have any real influence in this region and can easily be isolated, regionally and globally, and can be pressured to a point where it either surrenders or disappears. These are the three myths we wanted to challenge.
Challenging these myths puts you up against some very powerful forces in American society. We have made some progress on the irrationality myth. There is a greater willingness among American elites to consider that Iran has a rational foreign policy and that it can be engaged on that basis. There are still people who reject this idea, but we have made some progress. It is on the other two myths that we have gotten the strongest opposition. There are any number of people who will basically agree with us that Iran could have a very rational foreign policy and that the United States should be talking with Iran. But, they ask us, why do have to say the Islamic Republic is a legitimate system? Why don’t you just say that it is a terrible dictatorship but that this does not matter and that the United States should talk to Iran anyway.
Hillary: In the U.S. government, we also worked on Libya, on U.S.-Libyan rapprochement in the early 2000s. We thought that, for Libya, too, the U.S. sanctions should be lifted and that the United States should engage Libya. The United States could say that Qadhafi is crazy and the Libyan system is a dictatorship, but it is in U.S. interests to realign relations with Libya. Then look what happened. As soon as there was a protest in Libya, the United States was intervening on one side, against Qadhafi. Any small problem can be used in the U.S. system as the reason to overthrow political orders in other countries, as we saw in Libya.
Flynt: And the U.S. government did this even though the Libyan government had basically surrendered to the United States on weapons of mass destruction, on terrorism, and on the nuclear issue in return for an American commitment to normalize relations, lift sanctions, and stop trying to overthrow it. That was the deal. The Libyans did not even dismantle their nuclear infrastructure themselves—they let American technicians come in and dismantle their centrifuges. Those centrifuges are now in the United States.
Q: Were the centrifuges and other facilities transferred to America reassembled there? And how can the situation with Iran be dealt with under current conditions in the American system—from the administration and Congress?
Flynt: That’s a good question; I really don’t know. But this is why it is important for the United States to make accepting the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy part of coming to terms with the Islamic Republic. This means not just recognizing that Iran has legitimate national interests, but also recognizing that this political order is a legitimate representative of those interests. But neoconservatives in the United States do not want to accept the Islamic Republic, the pro-Israel lobby does not want to accept it, even a lot of liberals on what you might call the left side in the United States can be very interventionist on what they think of as human rights. They say that they do not like war but they are in favor of what they call humanitarian intervention.
Hillary: Each of them, neoconservatives and liberals, funds think tanks and gives money to universities to have centers for the Middle East. As a result, they have this production of knowledge which is not based on facts. It is not based on being in Iran or even on data and statistics you can find in the United States. Anybody in the United States could look at UN statistics on education here in Iran. They could see the Islamic Republic’s record on education for boys and girls, how the Islamic Republic has nearly eliminated the difference in education for boys and girls that prevailed under the Shah, and see how much progress has been made since the revolution. But they don’t, because these think tanks are paid for the production of information to advance a particular agenda. The lobbies dominate the debate, with the help of think tanks and a lot of media.
Q: You investigated Iran’s 2009 election and concluded that election was conducted accurately and with no fraud. Can you explain more about this research?
Hillary: About the 2009 election—we are not Iranian officials; it is not our place to verify an election here, one way or the other. Our analysis of the election made two points. First, there were many polls before the election. When we examined these polls, it seemed very clear that President Ahmadinejad could have won the election, and could have done so with around 60 percent of the vote. Second, when we looked at various claims that there was fraud in the election, we never found any evidence of fraud. Different people had different ideas on how there could have been fraud, but no one as far as we know ever offered actual evidence of fraud.
As Americans, we do not want to take a side in Iranian domestic politics, and it is not our place to say that there was no fraud. However, we thought it was important to say that the best polls indicated Ahmadinejad was going to win, and that no one had presented actual evidence of fraud. It was important for us to say that in the United States, because the overwhelming majority of American analysts, including some of our best friends, said—without any evidence—that the election was a fraud. Many of them went on to argue for regime change in Iran, because the election had supposedly been a fraud. We thought it was important to dispute this charge, in part because the charge was intellectually dishonest and disregarded real information and facts. It was also important to dispute the charge because the charge was dangerous, given the historical direction of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and in the Middle East more generally. I suppose that, tomorrow, someone might come out with evidence of fraud. But we did not see any evidence at the time; we still have not seen it. And even if there was fraud, it is still not America’s business. We saw what happened in Libya, when there were protests and the United States intervened. Look what happened to Libya after the United States overthrew Qadhafi. It’s a disaster.
Q: What was the feedback from publishing the book?
Flynt: It was extremely polarized. On one side, people said that it was a brilliant book, and important book—including people like Noam Chomsky. On the other side, our critics said we had not just written a bad book; they literally said we had written an evil book, a “morally deformed” book. Our critics said, “You are trying to get us to accept an evil system”—Iran. This is, we think, an indicator of how hard it is going to be for the United States to reformulate its foreign policy toward Iran.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett