Earlier today, the Atlantic Council hosted a debate between Michael Ledeen, author of Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West and Flynt Leverett, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation over the future direction of American relations with Iran.
Leverett's key point: He acknowledges past attempts at engagement – but those attempts narrowly focused on some specific tactical issue. Leverett claims Iranians have in fact cooperated on the issue on which engagement was sought. They thought by doing so they might prompt us to rethink our willingness to live with the Islamic republic. The historical record: typically its the American administration that pulls the plug on tactical cooperation, either because of domestic political blowback or in reaction to some other Iranian provocation unrelated to the area of cooperation.
Leverett claims this is what happened in 2002: The Iranians were helpful on Afghanistan – their reward was to be labeled part of the axis of evil – and to see Afghan cooperation cut off. Leverett argues that no president has ever proposed a "grand bargain." He asserts that Iranians would accept such a bargain – but his evidence for this proposition is lacking.
The last question of the session elicited the key premise of Leverett's thought: the U.S. is not a hegemonic power in the Middle East any more. It is up to us to first prove our bona fides to Iran, not the other way around. Yes, there are things we need to get out of this grand bargain for it to be worthwhile for us. But we will have to commence with what Leverett agrees to call "pre-emptive concessions."
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Ledeen's key point: A grand bargain with Iran is desirable. It just cannot happen with this regime. But the U.S. is giving no support to the Green movement – and the leaders of the movement are contacts of Ledeen's dating back 25 years. He has always opposed military action, and continues to oppose bombing Iran. The regime is rotting. It is not self-confident, not stable.
How to support the opposition: give them satellite phones. Above all, let the government of the U.S. endorse calls for release of political prisoners, freedom of speech and press, equal rights for women. But time ends before Ledeen is able to offer reasons for his confidence that this will work.
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Here's the question left behind by the Ledeen-Leverett debate: Did we hear an early indicator of emerging Obama administration policy? Flynt Leverett and his wife and co-author Hillary Mann are perceptibly under pressure these days even within the broad dovish-on-Iran grouping of opinion. Expressions of sympathy for the democratic aspirations of the Green movement are the style, not Flynt's dismissal of that movement's support and prospects. It's hard to imagine either Secretary of State Clinton or President Obama articulating the kind of cold calculus Leverett advocates. (It was notable during the debate that Flynt turned away from every opportunity to express condemnation of any aspect of Iran's internal or external policy. The furthest he would go was to say that Iran imposed some restrictions on women that he would not wish to see imposed on his own wife and daughters.)
On the other hand, what other policy has the administration got? Its outreach to Iran was slapped away last summer. Sanctions remain on the drawing board. Military force is obviously off the table. Pre-emptive concession is at least less passive than the present course of drift – and an administration desperate to avert the humiliation of an Iranian nuclear test might well be tempted to pay a high price to halt Iran just short of a visible nuclear breakout.
Might the administration thus find itself following the path Leverett has traced? Only with more sentimental words – and a greater readiness to conceal concession within euphemism?