WASHINGTON, D.C. - Hillary Mann Leverett and her partner and husband, Flynt Leverett, make the Iran desk staffers in the Israeli intelligence community see red. For the past two years the Leveretts, both of whom are former U.S. National Security Council and State Department officials, have preached relentlessly against using sanctions and threats against Iran.
In late September, a harsh op-ed they wrote condemning the Obama administration appeared in The New York Times. In it they argued that the lofty talk of "openness" and the promise of "dialogue" with the Iranians are just empty rhetoric. On their Internet site, in lectures, in interviews and in their journal articles, they present assessments and proposals for action that are different from, and sometimes nearly the opposite of, those that politicians and experts in the West and in Israel present the public. They are critical of the U.S. support of Israel's nuclear ambiguity and are horrified by the possibility of Israel attacking Iran's nuclear installations.
Mann Leverett, today the CEO of the Stratega political-risk consulting firm, was a panelist in a discussion on Iran at the J Street conference in Washington two weeks ago. Before a full house of a mostly Jewish audience, she analyzed the Iranian strategy without bias or emotion: For years now, more sanctions, more boycotts and more threats have not budged Iran from its nuclear program, and they will not budge it in the future. The time has come to try to talk the Iranians in a different language, a language of respect and cooperation.
According to her, since the invasion of Iraq, Iran's regional influence has increased to the point that, without it, no progress can be made on such critical issues as the Palestinians, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and energy.
In a conversation with Haaretz, Mann Leverett, 41, said that up until seven or eight years ago, relations with Iran were "in the category of 'nice to have' for U.S. foreign policy. Today, rapprochement with Iran is in the 'must-have' category: The United States cannot achieve any of its high-profile objectives in the Middle East without a more productive relationship with the Islamic Republic, as it is constituted rather than as some wish it to be."
Mann Leverett's critics find it hard to dismiss her by labeling her as an "Israel hater." She grew up in a Jewish household, attended Brandeis University, worked as an intern at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which was born in the offices of AIPAC. She served in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo under Dan Kurtzer (and also in the embassies in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar). When she returned to the United States she joined a team headed by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Richard Holbrooke, which participated in talks with Iran over Afghanistan.
Her acquaintance with the Iranians deepened after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when she worked at the National Security Council in the unit that advises the president on Iran, Afghanistan and the Gulf states. She speaks of impressive cooperation with the Iranians, leading to the capture and expulsion of 200 Al-Qaida members from their country. According to Mann Leverett, a directive from Tehran ordering the Iranian militias in Afghanistan to join a local force established by the United States spared the Americans the kind of trouble and losses being inflicted by the militias Iran is now funding and training in Iraq.
"I was deeply impressed," she said, "by the quality of my Iranian interlocutors and the sophisticated manner in which they thought about their country's national interests."
This impression was confirmed by the many meetings she held with Iranian diplomats, officials and intellectuals across the ideological spectrum after her retirement from government service in 2004.
"Many career professionals in the State Department, the military and the U.S. intelligence community commend my argument on the necessity for a comprehensive framework for resolving U.S.-Iranian differences and realigning relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic in the same way President Nixon realigned relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China," Mann Leverett said. "Some of the more political types in the Obama administration wish I'd shut up and just be supportive of whatever they do."
She is also attacked on the Jewish right, but many in the community, she says, fear the disastrous consequences of getting blindly swept up into war with Iran over Israel's security and peace in the region.
To a question about the possibility that Israel will attack Iran, she relates above all as an American.
"Iran will not distinguish between an 'Israeli' attack and a 'U.S.' attack in calculating its response. If attacked by Israel, Iran will respond against both Israeli and American interests. Iran has many levers for targeting U.S. interests in the region, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Pentagon has complained about Iranian support for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, if one considers how much damage the Iranians could do to U.S. interests in both Iraq and Afghanistan, one would have to conclude that Tehran has actually been rather restrained in these arenas. An Israeli military strike would almost certainly end that restraint," she says.
Nor does she conceal her criticism of American policy regarding Israel's own nuclear program. "President Obama may enjoy talking like he is serious about nuclear disarmament, but I don't believe he is prepared to challenge Israel on the nuclear issue. Israel will be able to ignore the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty until an American president gets serious about global nonproliferation and disarmament, including the creation of weapons of mass-destruction-free zones in critical regions like the Middle East. That will require a country-neutral approach to nonproliferation issues by the United States, which would mean an end to U.S. support for Israel's nuclear ambiguity," Mann Leverett observes.
"American support for Israeli nuclear ambiguity strongly reinforces deep-seated perceptions in Tehran that the United States is out to ensure not merely Israel's safety and security, but also its regional hegemony - and that is Iran's principal concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship," she says - in addition to Iran's status in the Middle East.
In her opinion, the fear of Israeli hegemony explains Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's violent anti-Israel rhetoric and his denial of the Holocaust.
"Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust serves instrumental purposes for him and is very calculated. His rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust is very popular not only at home inside Iran, but on the Arab street. Since Ahmadinejad became president of the Islamic Republic, public opinion polls show that he is routinely one of the two or three most popular political figures in the Arab world. This makes it very difficult for Sunni Arab regimes concerned about Iran's nuclear program or its rising regional influence to support military action against the Islamic Republic."
Mann Leverett notes that in Ahmadinejad's view, the only reward that his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, received for his support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was membership in the "axis of evil." Therefore, she says, Ahmadinejad has concluded that "he will get no significant strategic benefits from talking politely about Israel."
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