Our experience in the U.S. government—running from roughly the period of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s until March 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, when we left our positions at the White House on the National Security Council staff—effectively spanned the high-water mark of American primacy in the Middle East. In an interview for the University of California’s Conversations with History series, see here, we discuss how our government service gave us “ringside seats” to watch as “the United States really misused that primacy, misused its supremacy in ways that were grossly counterproductive for its own interests, and for America’s standing in international affairs.” We also reflect on how our experience in government has both prompted and helped us to explore the ways in which succumbing to an “imperial temptation” in the Middle East distorts American perceptions of the region and warps U.S. policy outcomes.
Turning to Iran, we argue that “structure” alone can’t explain modern Iranian foreign policy; one must also pay attention to culture and agency (in non-social science-speak, “choice”). In particular, one must appreciate the enormous differences between Iranian strategic culture under the Shah and Iranian strategic culture under the Islamic Republic. These differences explain why the Shah’s foreign policy was hegemonic, while, as Hillary puts it, “The Islamic Republic looks at regional and international relations, at regional politics in terms of balance.” It seeks to replace U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East not with Iranian hegemony, but with balance.
In the interview, we describe how encouraging the spread of more popular and representative governments in the Middle East is a central element in the Islamic Republic’s balancing strategy. This leads into a discussion of the extremely polarized reaction to Going to Tehran—including, on the negative side, highly personal attacks against us. On this point, Flynt says,
“The problem that people have with us—they’ll say it’s a question of ‘tone,’ or this or that—the real problem is that what we’re saying is that, particularly in a Middle East in which public opinion is mattering more than ever before, the United States does not have a narrative with which to compete for influence. We’ve got carrier battle groups coming out our ears, but we do not have a narrative…The Islamic Republic has one, and it knows how to use it to its strategic advantage…[For Americans with a hegemonic perspective on the Middle East,] we’re creating cognitive dissonance.”
Of course, we take up the place of Israel in both American and Iranian grand strategies. We have enormous respect for John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt; Flynt was one of the few former U.S. officials to speak to them on the record for their essential book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. But we differ somewhat from John and Steve in our argument that “blind” American support for Israel is not primarily a function of the Israel lobby. Rather, the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” is driven by American elite perceptions, since the 1967 war, that a military dominant Israel helps America’s own hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East; in this context, the Israel lobby is “pushing on an open door.”
We discuss other topics during what turned out to be a substantively very rich conversation with Harry Kreisler: the Iranian case for the integration of participatory politics with Islamic governance as the only way for Muslims to reassert their independence and embrace true self-determination; the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election; the Iranian nuclear program; and the imperatives for U.S. rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. We end on the “Nixon-to-China” model, the real requirements for a U.S. diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran, and the future of America’s role in the Middle East.
Hosted by Harry Kreisler, Conversations with History has for 31 years recorded interviews with some of the world’s leading scholars and practitioners of international affairs, journalists, writers, and other public intellectuals (e.g., Andrew Bacevich, Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, the late Chalmers Johnson, Kishore Mahbubani, John Mearsheimer, Kenzabuo Oe, and Stephen Walt). We are humbled and gratified to be included in the series, and grateful to Harry Kreisler for inviting us. We encourage everyone to watch the video—and urge all who do to leave comments where the video is posted on You Tube as well as here.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett