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Iran Contrarians

Ahmadinejad’s Washington power couple.

Say what you want about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but “he knows how to work a room.” So claims Flynt Leverett, the contrarian Iran analyst who, with his wife Hillary Mann Leverett, paid a visit to the Iranian president in New York City last fall. During the sit-down at Manhattan’s InterContinental Barclay hotel with a group of invited academics, foreign policy professionals, and other Iranophiles, the Leveretts marveled at Ahmadinejad’s attention to detail as the Iranian took copious notes and strove to pronounce their unfamiliar names correctly. “He addresses every person by name. He made a serious effort to address everyone’s issue,” Flynt says. “It was really striking, the retail politics aspect.”

As former Bush White House officials, the Leveretts might seem unlikely company for the diminutive tyrant. But Ahmadinejad has reason to admire the married Middle East analysts. They are, after all, the most prominent voices in the U.S. media arguing that he was legitimately reelected last June, and that the opposition Green Movement is a flash in the pan. “There is no revolution afoot in Iran, and the social base of this movement is not growing; it is, in fact, shrinking,” Flynt recently said on PBS’s “NewsHour.” He has made his case everywhere from MSNBC to NPR to The New York Times op-ed page, where he and his wife have made three shared appearances since late May.

To the Leveretts, Ahmadinejad’s Bill Clinton-like personal touch underscores their argument that, far from a thug repressing his people, he is, in fact, a charming leader with broad Iranian support--and one whose true nature the United States fails to understand. And, in any case, they say, moral indignation over his regime’s character distracts us from clear strategic thinking. Both economic sanctions and the Green Movement will fail to contain Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions. America’s only choice is to engage Iran, nuclear bomb or no. For that, they have earned the enmity of former friends and colleagues--and even drawn death threats. “We are portrayed as un-American, stooges of the regime,” complains Hillary.

But it’s not the Leveretts’ ultra-realist policy views that are so discomfiting. It is the sense that they cross a line into making apologies for the loathsome Ahmadinejad. And that makes for one of Washington’s most intriguing mysteries: How did two ex-Bush aides become the Iranian regime’s biggest intellectual defenders?

In the fall of 2001, Hillary Mann saw Flynt deliver a speech on the Arab-Israeli peace process and fell for him. Flynt was then a CIA officer with a Princeton Ph.D., on assignment to the State Department’s policy planning staff. Hillary, nearly ten years his junior at 33, was a Brandeis and Harvard law graduate working at the United Nations. When Flynt asked Hillary to lunch, he told the Times’ “Vows” column, “there was no plausible deniability” it was a date. By the time the two married in February 2003, they were both working on Bush’s National Security Council (he as director for the Middle East, she as director for Iran and Afghanistan), planning their wedding during breaks from planning the Iraq war. “I find it a bit hard to think of the Bush White House as the Love Boat,” cracked their best man, Richard Haass, then a senior State Department official, in his toast.

The Bush White House may have brought them together, but the couple soon turned against it. Flynt says he left his job the month after his wedding out of disillusionment with Bush’s hawkish Middle East policies. Hillary departed soon after, spending several months at the State Department before leaving government. (One former White House official says that Flynt didn’t quit but was fired for bureaucratic incompetence, including an office so unkempt that Condoleezza Rice herself was appalled. While admitting that he keeps “a messy desk,” Flynt denies this account.) Flynt went on to advise John Kerry’s presidential campaign and worked a stint at the Brookings Institution. In 2006, Hillary formed the consulting firm Stratega, which advises corporate clients on Middle Eastern politics. 

By then, the Leveretts had begun publicly bashing Bush’s Iran policy--specifically his rejection of a May 2003 memo from a mid-level Iranian diplomat offering comprehensive talks with the United States that would include Iran’s nuclear program. Cheneyite hawks certainly had no interest in such a deal, but even former Secretary of State Colin Powell has cast doubt on whether the offer represented the regime’s true thinking. Still, the media thrilled to the idea that a bellicose Bush had rejected talks. When the Leveretts sought to publish a New York Times op-ed on the subject in December 2006, the White House insisted on censoring it, and the Times theatrically published the heavily redacted version anyway. An Esquire profile soon cast the Leveretts as heroic dissidents standing athwart another blind march to war. The couple’s new cachet drew influential Washingtonians to salon dinners they began holding at their home in suburban McLean, Virginia.

The Leveretts voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but, despite his efforts to broker a dialogue with Tehran, they found his attempts lacking and soon turned on him as well. By last spring, they were warning that Obama had already “lost” Iran, complaining that he had not halted Bush-era covert programs against Iran’s nuclear program. They also complained that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House Iran point man Dennis Ross were too hawkish. “The administration’s approach to Iran degenerates into an only slightly prettified version of George W. Bush’s approach,” they wrote in a May 24 piece for the Times, one that noticeably echoed Tehran’s position. And then came the June 12 Iranian election.

In the days after the election, many foreign observers were sure it had been rigged. The votes had been counted suspiciously quickly, and Ahmadinejad’s alleged 63 percent to 34 percent margin of victory struck many Iran experts as implausible given the huge crowds supporting his challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. But, writing in Politico, the Leveretts argued against “wishful thinking.” “Ahmadinejad won. get over it,” huffed their headline. In early January, they took to the Times again to dismiss the significance of large anti-Ahmadinejad protests that had occurred the week before, arguing that pro-government crowds had been larger and that Mousavi had become “increasingly marginalized.”

It’s not obvious that this analysis is wrong--especially in the wake of disappointing Green turnout last week on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution--although, in a state willing to beat, arrest, and even kill protesters, gauging the popular mood is never simple. But the Leveretts’ argument doesn’t stop with an assessment of Iranian opinion. That was clear when I met with them at the New America Foundation, where Flynt is a fellow. (He also teaches at Penn State University.) Now 51, Flynt is tall, with close-cut gray hair, a salt-and-pepper goatee, and the fastidious manner common to national security professionals--a contrast to his chatty wife, now 42. I asked the Leveretts why, if Ahmadinejad enjoys such broad support, his regime has cracked down so brutally. In fact, they told me, Ahmadinejad has shown restraint. “It’s become politically incorrect and impossible to say it, but ... this government hasn’t even begun to deploy the force it’s capable of using,” says Hillary. (Even the videotaped shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan on a Tehran street was an “exceptional” and “isolated” case, she says.) “There’s a slightly flippant counter-response,” Flynt says with a wry grin. “Why did the Nixon campaign order the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building when it was clear Nixon was going to win reelection by a landslide?” The Leveretts also sought to account for Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel as shrewd regional politics. “It does get to him when he’s described to the outside world as anti-Semitic. He would describe himself as anti-Zionist,” Flynt explains. “Resistance to Israel is an important theme to him. ... If it’s crazy, it’s crazy like a fox.”

The Leveretts are not just isolated politically, but also personally. After Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a recent Newsweek essay urging a U.S. push for regime change in Iran, the Leveretts posted a contemptuous online response that mocked their best man’s involvement in planning the Iraq war. Haass, who declined to comment, is said to have been furious. Another person who once considered himself a good friend of the couple now says he’s lost touch with them in part due to their policy views. And, when asked about erstwhile dinner guest Karim Sadjadpour, a prominent Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Flynt acknowledges, “Once upon a time, we were closer to him than we are now. There are other people like that.” The Obama administration is also baffled at how a couple that once cheered it on now accuses it of “diplomatic incompetence.” “I hear from very senior people in the administration who say, ‘What are Flynt and Hillary doing?’” says New America’s Steven Clemons. Meanwhile, the Leveretts say they have been sent blood-spattered photographs of a dead Neda Soltan bearing the message: This should be you.

Some former friends and colleagues say the Leveretts seem to have changed. Flynt voted for Bush in 2000 and says he didn’t oppose the Iraq war “on principle”--although he has been accused of softness on Middle Eastern strongmen before, including in a book he wrote about Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. His wife’s resumé is more surprising. Hillary, who volunteers that she is Jewish, studied at Tel Aviv University and worked briefly at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. At the latter, she denounced efforts in 1997 to engage Iran’s then-relatively moderate leadership and called for an economic crackdown against the country. “This is not the Hillary we remember,” says one ex-Bush White House official.

What happened? Some critics accuse the Leveretts of becoming corporate shills. Their salon dinners, for instance, have included executives from oil companies that have done business in Iran, including Norway-based Statoil and French Total. The Leveretts firmly deny that they are peddling access or trying to affect policy for corporate gain. Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, says he recently conducted a review of their business ties and is “entirely satisfied there is no conflict. ... The idea that their ideas are compromised is without foundation.”

Perhaps the Leveretts were transformed by what they saw as Bush’s blown opportunity to deal with Iran. Hillary says her dealings with Iranian diplomats as a Bush White House aide at the start of the Afghanistan war made her understand Tehran’s willingness to engage. “It seems that the Leveretts are almost frozen in time circa 2003 on this,” says Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner. The Leveretts have also come to accept the realist critique that Israel occupies too great a role in America’s foreign policy calculus; Flynt clashed with fellow Bush officials about what peace-process concessions Israel should be asked to make, for instance. “For a lot of pro-Israel groups, these [views of Iran] are non-starters,” he says.

Or perhaps, on some level, they have actually grown to admire Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In our meeting, I pressed them to say just how they feel about the Iranian leader. Geopolitics aside, did they consider him a despicable human being? “I think he’s actually a quite intelligent man,” Flynt replied. “I think he also has really extraordinary political skills.” “[T]he idea that he’s stupid or doesn’t understand retail politics is also pretty divorced from reality,” Hillary added. But that wasn’t the question.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.

This article has been slightly updated from the print version.

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