Should the United States try to reach a grand rapprochement with Iran in the manner of our opening to China under Nixon? Or should we instead overtly support domestic reformers and try to topple the regime as we did with the Soviet Union under Reagan?
Flynt Leverett and Michael Ledeen, respectively, advocated those alternatives in a rousing debate sponsored by the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and moderated by David Ignatius.
As Ignatius noted in introducting the panel, quite frequently, "the range of permissible opinion in Washington normally stretches from A to B, maybe to C." In this case, though, Leverett and Ledeen expressed "a genuine disagreement about what the United States should do on arguably our most important foreign policy priority."
Ledeen won the coin toss and opened with the bold position that, "We can both engage with Iran and support revolution in Iran at the same time. We did it with the Soviet Union. There is no reason on Earth why we can't do it with Iran."
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Freedom Scholar observed, "We've engaged for, by my count, 31 years. Every American president has eventually come to the conclusion that we could make a grand bargain with Iran and has tried to do it. That includes even George W. Bush."
These have failed, he argued, because "the basic fact for the United States and for American policy is that Iran is at war with us and has been at war with us for 31 years. " Indeed, "Iran kills Americans whenever and however it can. It took years before it was possible in polite society here or anywhere else to point out that the IEDs, which were the single-greatest cause of American casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan, were largely of Iranian origin."
Under these circumstances, then, Ledeen believes "the case of Iran is one of those rare cases in which moral and strategic obligation intersect and coincide. And so I think it's both morally right and strategically sound to support revolution in Iran."
Leverett, a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and former CIA analyst and senior NSC official, began with the simple premise that"the United States needs strategic rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is not a nice-to-have thing. It is an imperative." Why? Because "the United States cannot achieve any of its high-priority goals in the Middle East, whether with regard to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting al Qaeda or assuring energy security, without a more productive relationship with Iran."
He believes "I think you can draw a useful analogy between the Islamic Republic today and the People's Republic of China in the late 1960s, early 1970s" where engagement with an "emerging regional power" paid enormous dividends.
And, while "every administration has tried in some way to engage the Islamic Republic," Leverett dismisses them as "narrowly focused, usually on some specific tactical issue" and therefore not appealing to a regime that distrusts American motives. They will only respond to a comprehensive deal.
Ledeen counters, "I don't believe that we will ever get a workable modus vivendi, let's call it, with Iran so long as this regime is in power. I just don't think it'll happen. I think they hate us. I think that the Islamic Republic is based on hatred of America; a desire to destroy or dominate us along with all the other infidels."
Indeed, he notes, it's not as if the United States alone has failed to come to terms with Iran. "Do you also blame the French, the British, the Germans, the Italians, the Russians and so forth – that is, all the others who have been trying to reach some kind of agreement with Iran on a very narrow subject, namely, uranium enrichment?"
That said, he reminds us that "I have argued for years against any kind of military action against Iran. And I am violently opposed to the various calls for bombing, even bombing nuclear facilities and so forth." Instead, " I have always supported, both in Iran and elsewhere, nonviolent, democratic revolution, which is what I'm calling for in Iran. And I believe Iran is right on the verge of it, and I think it's very easily accomplished."
Leverett countered, "For 30 years, neoconservative analysts have been arguing that the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the verge of fundamental political upheaval. " He sees no evidence to support those hopes. To the contrary, " They had a revolution 31 years ago. They don't want another one."
Furthermore, " We may not like it; we may not understand it; but most Iranians want to live in the Islamic Republic of Iran. They may want the Islamic Republic to evolve in various ways. They don't want that Islamic adjective taken out of the name of the country."
Beyond that, he believes there's "no hard evidence" that the most recent presidential election was stolen, despite widespread insistence to the contrary in the West." For Leverett, this reflexive distrust of the Iranian regime is "altogether too reminiscent of the debate in our country during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq."
Needless to say, neither man left with his mind changed. Whether others in the audience did, I can't say, but they at least got to hear two sane options vigorously debated on the merits — indeed a rarity in this town.
As for myself, I find that one rarely goes wrong taking the most pessimistic assumptions of both sides and assuming they'll come true.
Ledeen is almost certainly right that the United States and Iran are simply too far apart to come to an amicable general accord. It would be great if Iran would help us solve all our myriad problems in the region but they'll only do so in those cases where they can't afford to do otherwise.
But I agree with Leverett that the implosion of the Islamist regime is a neocon fantasy. We've been counting on the "Iranian moderates" since Ollie North and the gang cooked up their elaborate arms for hostages deal and been continually disappointed. The Green movement that has Americans all a-Twitter is not the rise of a Jeffersonian democratic movement but the backers of a competing regime-approved Islamist candidate. Hard evidence or no, I'm pretty sure the last election was stolen. Hell, I'm pretty sure the one before that was stolen, too. But, at the end of the day, the Iranian president is a hood ornament. Iran is run by the ayatollahs, not the suits.
At the same time, Ledeen is almost surely right that bombing Iran isn't an option. (And I only qualify with an "almost" because Chuck Wald, who knows a little something about air operations, disagrees.)
Sadly, this means that we're likely to see not only the continuation of the mullahs in power in Iran but, ultimately, will have to accept the "unacceptable" reality of seeing that regime armed with nuclear weapons. But, if we can't talk, wish, or bomb that outcome away, that's where this road leads.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.