Countdown to a Nuclear Iran? – An Interview with Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett

Conducted by Edward Fishman

Flynt Leverett is the Director of the Iran project and a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation. His expertise is on the Middle East and Persian Gulf, U.S. foreign policy, and global energy affairs. He has served in a number of senior posts in the U.S. government, including Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, counterterrorism expert on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and Senior Analyst with the CIA.

Hillary Mann Leverett is a Middle East analyst and former State Department and National Security Council official. She is currently the chief executive officer of STRATEGA, a political-risk consulting firm. She worked for many years in the U.S. government as Middle East expert for the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff; political adviser on the Middle East, Sudan, and Central Asia at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and in U.S. embassies in Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia; and Director for Iran, Afghanistan, and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council.

The Politic: You have pushed for a US-Iranian “grand bargain” to resolve existing tensions. In your view, would such a “grand bargain” require the United States to accept an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability?

FL: That depends on your definition of a nuclear-weapons capability. If your definition is uranium enrichment, then yes: the Iranians are already enriching uranium at levels far from weapons grade, but they are enriching uranium. They are stockpiling low-enriched uranium in quantities where in theory, if you took it out of storage, ran it back through the centrifuges and knew what you were doing, you could produce usable amounts of weapons-grade material. So if that is your definition of a nuclear-weapons capability, then yes. But I think that’s a really silly definition of a nuclear-weapons capability. There’s no shortage of countries in the world that by that definition have a nuclear-weapons capability, and I think over time the number of countries that have a nuclear-weapons capability by that definition will only grow. Under the NPT this is perfectly legal, permissible, and legitimate.

HML: That is critical: we’ve already reached a grand bargain with Iran and other countries under the NPT. We are both signatories of it. And the grand bargain we signed up to in the NPT was that countries would be able to have fuel-cycle capabilities. We’ve already agreed to that. If you’re asking whether we should change the agreement to which we are bound by the NPT, that is another question. But the grand bargain that already exists between the U.S. and Iran allows Iran to have those capabilities.

The Politic: That is fine, but the main issue the United States and others have about Tehran’s nuclear program is the secrecy that hangs over it, not to mention the regime’s aggressive rhetoric. What could the United States do that would convince the Iranian regime to prove its lack of intentions to weaponize by permitting full inspections of all its nuclear facilities?

FL: The Iranians have said to us and others on many occasions that if the United States and its partners would stop insisting on suspension of uranium enrichment – if they would accept the reality in principle that Iran was going to enrich uranium – things such as the ratification and implementation of the Addition Protocol to the NPT and other verification measures that control the risks of fuel-cycle activities would become eminently possible. If the principle of enrichment is accepted, and Iran is not treated differently than other countries, then Iran is prepared to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol, and negotiate other verification measures that should, properly implemented, give the international community confidence that the proliferation risks of its uranium enrichment are under control.

HML: The nuclear component of what we’re proposing for a bilateral U.S.-Iranian grand bargain would try to put Iran’s nuclear program in a context where it could be more transparent and more open to sufficiently guaranteeing the United States that its nuclear fuel-cycle capability would not be diverted.

FL: We have had IAEA officials tell us that the agency gets better physical access to the Iranian facilities that it inspects – Natanz, for example – then it gets to analogous facilities in Western countries. The issue about the veil of secrecy is not really about what’s going on at Natanz, it’s about being able to access facilities that might not necessarily have been declared, which is covered under the Additional Protocol, and it’s about other issues that aren’t directly related to the fuel-cycle program, such as whether Iran has done some level of study, research, and exploration into other engineering issues that have to be solved in order to fabricate nuclear weapons. That’s a different matter than its declared fuel-cycle program.

The Politic: Many have argued that a nuclear-armed Iran would spark a dangerous arms race in the Middle East. In your view, how would an Iranian nuclear weapon affect the region?

FL: That’s assuming that Iran actually wants to and has made a decision to go all the way to weaponization. I actually don’t think there’s any evidence they’ve decided to weaponize.

The Politic: If Iran were to weaponize, would it beget a nuclear arms race in the Middle East?

HML: The Arab states have been in various states of war with Israel now for sixty years. Some have made peace, but there have been various states of war going on for sixty years. And for most of that time the Israelis have had nuclear weapons. The Arabs have declared, whether this is genuine or not, that Israel is their enemy. Yet when their enemy acquired nuclear weapons, the Arab states did not rush to acquire nuclear weapons. So to say that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by another enemy of the Arab states [Iran], again whether this is genuine or not, would cause the Arab states to do so ignores history. We have the precedent of how the Arab states reacted when Israel acquired nuclear weapons, and they did not follow suit. To then draw the conclusion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would have a different effect is unfounded. I think what you have here is the Arab states’ antagonism toward Iran operating at the same time that there is a huge incentive for Arab states to develop nuclear power, for issues that have nothing to do with concern for Iran or nuclear weapons, but have to do with the desire not to waste their oil and natural gas on internal consumption.

The Politic: Nuclear terrorism has emerged as one of the greatest national security fears in the United States. Given that Tehran is a known supporter of terrorist organizations, would a nuclear-armed Iran significantly enhance the risk of nuclear terrorism?

HML: The real concern we have here is with a country like Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, and has a close relationship to the Taliban, which has a close relationship to Al Qaeda. I don’t think there has ever been anybody who has really made the case that Hezbollah or Hamas is looking to acquire a nuclear weapon. It just does not make sense in terms of the conflict they have with Israel, in which their populations are on the same territory, to use a nuclear weapon. So I don’t think that there is really a serious concern that those groups are looking for a nuclear weapon and that Iran would abet such an attempt to get a nuclear weapon. It is not Iran and its proxies but the Pakistan-Taliban-Al Qaeda trifecta that is very, very disturbing in terms of nuclear terrorism. I think it is more of this idea of Iran being threatening that bothers us — not so much a serious concern about their relationships with Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Politic: If either the United States or Israel attempts to take out Iranian nuclear facilities with air strikes, would a full-fledged war break out? If so, what would this war look like?

HML: First of all I don’t think there would be very much difference between whether the Israelis or the Americans struck. I think the perception in the region, both in Iran and throughout the Arab world, would be one and the same. Israel would be striking because of its connections to the United States, the United States would be striking because it cares about Israel’s concerns. I don’t think there would be any difference between the two other than that an American strike would be much more effective. But either way the reaction inside Iran would be very serious. It would not just be serious in terms of trying to strike back against the United States in all the place that Iran can do so, but also in terms of cutting off our supply lines to our troops in Iraq, cutting off supplies to our troops in Afghanistan, and threatening our troops in both of those arenas.

The Politic: Would a war break out?

HML: One of the most misunderstood but most important things about the Islamic Republic is that it does not have the ability to project conventional military force in any significant way beyond its borders. So the war that would break out would not be a conventional one; it would be an unconventional one. The two ways that the Iranians could fight back against an attack would be to either dramatically step up their capabilities in the nuclear field, or try to mobilize some of its proxies. And it would not just be Hezbollah, but proxies through their relationships with a multitude of political factions, associations, and militias in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Hamas and others. They would not necessarily retaliate with a big bang in some place, but rather a slow bleed. And it’s something you already see happening. You already see the balance of power in the region dramatically shifting in Iran’s favor: with Turkey, with Lebanon, with Palestine, with Syria, and with Iraq. Slowly but surely there’s a northern tier forming in the Middle East with Iran at its core, with countries that are balancing against both the United States and Israel. If you had a strike on Iran, you would only accelerate that process.

FL: The Iranians’ most strategically effective response, I would argue, would be a political one. I can guarantee that if either Israel or the United States strikes Iran there will be no international legitimation for it. There will be no Security Council resolution or anything else that could be at all plausibly used to justify it. And this is after the larger part of the world thinks that we went to war illegally in Iraq. If we do it again, and we do it again with Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States, I think the image of the United States as this unconstrained, even outlaw military power, would be really ratified in powerful ways for a lot of players around the world. Rising powers like China will not confront the United States militarily over this, but let’s keep in mind that if we’re going to fight a war with Iran, we’re going to be fighting it on borrowed money, and we’re going to fight it on money borrowed in no small part from China, and from other countries that aren’t going to take too kindly to actions that are going to raise their energy prices and put the global economy into turmoil. Are they really going to be willing to subsidize us this time around?

HML: Our concern particularly is that we could face a “Suez moment,” where the U.S. today would be playing the role of Britain in 1956, where we either orchestra or coordinate with the Israelis to launch an attack that is so widely perceived as illegitimate, and that another power, an emerging superpower like the U.S. was in 1956—today it could be China—says, “You stop that or we’ll pull our money out from under the dollar, just like Eisenhower threatened to pull American money out from under the sterling, and you’ll be bankrupt over night.” The Suez crisis was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Are we now about to have our own “Suez moment,” where the Chinese threaten to pull their money out from under the dollar and it’s the beginning of the end of American empire?

The Politic: It has been widely assumed that the Stuxnet worm was a government-backed cyber attack aimed at Iranian nuclear facilities. Do you think that cyber warfare is a good strategic option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue?

HML: During the Bush administration there was at least $400 million that was allocated to undermine the government of the Islamic Republic through a variety of both covert and overt measures. This could have been one of those projects, and certainly it is perceived inside Iran as being one. The strategic question is, What do you want to achieve with it? Do you want to achieve the downfall of the Islamic Republic? If so, I don’t think it’s going to be effective. Do you want to achieve a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic? I don’t think it’s going to be effective. Do you want to somehow hold back their nuclear program? I don’t know. I don’t know whether this virus or other forms of cyber warfare could have the impact of retarding their technological progress. I just don’t know. But on the other two questions, it won’t bring about the government’s downfall, and it certainly won’t bring about reconciliation or rapprochement.

The Politic: Emotions often run high in discussions of the Iranian nuclear issue. Given your positions, some critics have gone as far as labeling you “apologists” for the Iranian regime. How do you respond to these accusations?

HML: They are just ridiculous. What’s interesting though is that one of the most distorting elements of the Iran debate today is not even so much the emotionalism involved, but the fact that the U.S. government has prohibited U.S. officials for the most part from ever having a discussion with an Iranian official. We’re two of the very few exceptions, from when we worked in the U.S. government. I in particular had an extended negotiation with Iranian officials over Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and Iraq. The problem is that most American officials, pundits, and commentators never seriously consider the Iranian government’s position. You may reject it, like you may criticize the Syrian government’s position on a variety of issues, but at least Bashar al-Assad is heard—other countries and other people are at least heard. The Iranian government’s voice is never heard. What Flynt and I do is say we’ve had this discussion with these Iranian officials, and this is what they say about their strategy, this is what they say motivates them—we are simply reporting and analyzing it. We are not apologists. What’s unique about our perspective is that we took the authority we had in the U.S. government to actually talk to Iranian officials, and we have continued the discussions in what’s called a “track-two process,” in which former U.S. officials meet with similar Iranian officials in their personal capacities. Ten years of discussions with these officials doesn’t make me apologetic, but it does at least allow me to understand the Iranian point of view. The difference between our critics and us is that they can’t even begin to grasp the Iranian perspective because they’re simply not allowed to meet with them.

The Politic: But is it not possible that Tehran is trying to game the system—that the regime is simply feeding the international community what it wants to hear, while not acting overtly defiant enough to inspire serious opposition, in an effort to buy time for their nuclear program?

HML: First of all, in the discussions and negotiations the U.S. has had with Tehran, they did deliver what we asked of them. They didn’t do everything we wanted, but of the things we asked them to do they did a lot of them. And this track record is true not just in the discussions that I had. Look at Iran-Contra during the Reagan administration—why did Iran-Contra fall apart? It wasn’t because the Iranians didn’t hold up their side of the bargain; it was because Americans tried to divert the proceeds from selling weapons to the Iranians to arming the Contras, in violation of congressional mandates, and provoking a constitutional crisis here in the United States. Every U.S. administration has reached out to the Islamic Republic because they needed Tehran’s help for something. It was not just Iran-Contra. George H.W. Bush reached out to Tehran to get U.S. hostages out of Lebanon. The Clinton administration reached out to Tehran to help get weapons to the Muslims in Bosnia, again because U.S. congress refused. The George W. Bush administration that I participated in needed Iran’s help in Afghanistan and with Al Qaeda. In each one of these cases, the Iranians didn’t do everything that we asked, but they did most of it. We have been the ones to cut off the dialogue.

FL: The Iranians have their own narrative about this. Whenever they try to reach out and cooperate with the United States, they get slapped in the face in return. Take the Bonn Conference in December 2001, for example, where we agreed on the post-Taliban political order in Afghanistan. It literally would not have succeeded without U.S.-Iranian cooperation. And yet six weeks later Tehran gets labeled part of the “axis of evil.”

The Politic: You are married and have frequently co-authored articles. Is there anything you two disagree on?

HML: We do come from very different backgrounds. We are a mixed marriage. I’m Jewish, Flynt is Catholic. I went to Brandeis, he went to Texas Christian University. In some ways we have a different impulsive approach to issues, but I think for both of us, the experience of being in government and analyzing issues outside of government has made us very firm believers in dealing with reality as it is. We will often disagree in terms of an initial take, but then we both will say, “Let’s step back and think about how this actually played out,” and then, eventually, we basically do come to an agreement.

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