The Secret History of the Impending War with Iran That the White House Doesn't Want You to Know
Two former high-ranking policy experts from the Bush Administration say the U.S. has been gearing up for a war with Iran for years, despite claiming otherwise. It'll be Iraq all over again.
In the years after 9/11, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann worked at the highest levels of the Bush administration as Middle East policy experts for the National Security Council. Mann conducted secret negotiations with Iran. Leverett traveled with Colin Powell and advised Condoleezza Rice. They each played crucial roles in formulating policy for the region leading up to the war in Iraq. But when they left the White House, they left with a growing sense of alarm -- not only was the Bush administration headed straight for war with Iran, it had been set on this course for years. That was what people didn't realize. It was just like Iraq, when the White House was so eager for war it couldn't wait for the UN inspectors to leave. The steps have been many and steady and all in the same direction. And now things are getting much worse. We are getting closer and closer to the tripline, they say.
"The hard-liners are upping the pressure on the State Department," says Leverett. "They're basically saying, 'You've been trying to engage Iran for more than a year now and what do you have to show for it? They keep building more centrifuges, they're sending this IED stuff over into Iraq that's killing American soldiers, the human-rights internal political situation has gotten more repressive -- what the hell do you have to show for this engagement strategy?' "
But the engagement strategy was never serious and was designed to fail, they say. Over the last year, Rice has begun saying she would talk to "anybody, anywhere, anytime," but not to the Iranians unless they stopped enriching uranium first. That's not a serious approach to diplomacy, Mann says. Diplomacy is about talking to your enemies. That's how wars are averted. You work up to the big things. And when U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker had his much-publicized meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad this spring, he didn't even have permission from the White House to schedule a second meeting.
The most ominous new development is the Bush administration's push to name the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization.
"The U.S. has designated any number of states over the years as state sponsors of terrorism," says Leverett. "But here for the first time the U.S. is saying that part of a government is itself a terrorist organization."
This is what Leverett and Mann fear will happen: The diplomatic effort in the United Nations will fail when it becomes clear that Russia's and China's geopolitical ambitions will not accommodate the inconvenience of energy sanctions against Iran. Without any meaningful incentive from the U.S. to be friendly, Iran will keep meddling in Iraq and installing nuclear centrifuges. This will trigger a response from the hard-liners in the White House, who feel that it is their moral duty to deal with Iran before the Democrats take over American foreign policy. "If you get all those elements coming together, say in the first half of '08," says Leverett, "what is this president going to do? I think there is a serious risk he would decide to order an attack on the Iranian nuclear installations and probably a wider target zone."
This would result in a dramatic increase in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, attacks by proxy forces like Hezbollah, and an unknown reaction from the wobbly states of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where millions admire Iran's resistance to the Great Satan. "As disastrous as Iraq has been," says Mann, "an attack on Iran could engulf America in a war with the entire Muslim world."
Mann and Leverett believe that none of this had to be.
Flynt Lawrence Leverett grew up in Fort Worth and went to Texas Christian University. He spent the first nine years of his government career as a CIA analyst specializing in the Middle East. He voted for George Bush in 2000. On the day the assassins of Al Qaeda flew two hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, Colin Powell summoned him to help plan the response. Five months later, Leverett landed a plum post on the National Security Council. When Condoleezza Rice discussed the Middle East with President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, Leverett was the man standing behind her taking notes and whispering in her ear.
Today, he sits on the back deck of a house tucked into the curve of a leafy suburban street in McLean, Virginia, a forty-nine-year-old white American man wearing khakis and a white dress shirt and wire-rimmed glasses. Mann sits next to him, also wearing khakis. She's thirty-nine but looks much younger, with straight brown hair and a tomboy's open face. The polish on her toenails is pink. If you saw her around McLean, you wouldn't hesitate:
Soccer mom. Classic soccer mom.
But with degrees from Brandeis and Harvard Law and stints at Tel Aviv University and the powerful Israeli lobby known as AIPAC, she has even better right-wing credentials than her husband.
As they talk, eating grapes out of a bowl, lawn mowers hum and birds chirp. The floor is littered with toy trucks and rubber animals left behind by the youngest of their four children. But the tranquillity is misleading. When Mann and Leverett went public with the inside story behind the impending disaster with Iran, the White House dismissed them. Then it imposed prior restraint on them, an extraordinary episode of government censorship. Finally, it threatened them.
Now they are afraid of the White House, and watching what they say. But still, they feel they have to speak out.
Like so many things these days, this story began on the morning of September 11, 2001. On Forty-fifth Street in Manhattan, Mann had just been evacuated from the offices of the U.S. mission to the United Nations and was walking home to her apartment on Thirty-eighth Street -- walking south, toward the giant plume of smoke. When her cell phone rang, she picked it up immediately because her sister worked at the World Trade Center and she was frantic for word. But it wasn't her sister, it was a senior Iranian diplomat. To protect him from reprisals from the Iranian government, she doesn't want to name him, but she describes him as a cultured man in his fifties with salt-and-pepper hair. Since early spring, they had been meeting secretly in a small conference room at the UN.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Yes, she said, she was fine.
The attack was a terrible tragedy, he said, doubtless the work of Al Qaeda.
"I hope that we can still work together," he said.
That same day, in Washington, on the seventh floor of the State Department building, a security guard opened the door of Leverett's office and told him they were evacuating the building. Leverett was Powell's specialist on terrorist states like Syria and Libya, so he knew the world was about to go through a dramatic change. As he joined the people milling on the sidewalk, his mind was already racing.
Then he got a call summoning him back to Foggy Bottom. At the entrance to a specially fortified office, he showed his badge to the guards and passed into a windowless conference room. There were about a dozen people there, Powell's top foreign-policy planners. Powell told them that their first job was to make plans to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The second job was to rally allies. That meant detailed strategies for approaching other nations -- in some cases, Powell could make the approach, in others the president would have to make the call. Then Powell left them to work through the night.
At 5:30 a.m. on September 12, they walked the list to the office of the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage. Powell took it straight to the White House.
Mann and Leverett didn't know each other then, but they were already traveling down parallel tracks. Months before September 11, Mann had been negotiating with the Iranian diplomat at the UN. After the attacks, the meetings continued, sometimes alone and sometimes with their Russian counterpart sitting in. Soon they traded the conference room for the Delegates' Lounge, an airy two-story bar with ashtrays for all the foreigners who were used to smoking indoors. One day, up on the second floor where the windows overlooked the East River, the diplomat told her that Iran was ready to cooperate unconditionally, a phrase that had seismic diplomatic implications. Unconditional talks are what the U.S. had been demanding as a precondition to any official diplomatic contact between the U.S. and Iran. And it would be the first chance since the Islamic revolution for any kind of rapprochement. "It was revolutionary," Mann says. "It could have changed the world."
A few weeks later, after signing on to Condoleezza Rice's staff as the new Iran expert in the National Security Council, Mann flew to Europe with Ryan Crocker -- then a deputy assistant secretary of state -- to hold talks with a team of Iranian diplomats. Meeting in a light-filled conference room at the old UN building in Geneva, they hammered out plans for Iranian help in the war against the Taliban. The Iranians agreed to provide assistance if any American was shot down near their territory, agreed to let the U.S. send food in through their border, and even agreed to restrain some "really bad Afghanis," like a rabidly anti-American warlord named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, quietly putting him under house arrest in Tehran. These were significant concessions. At the same time, special envoy James Dobbins was having very public and warm discussions in Bonn with the Iranian deputy foreign minister as they worked together to set up a new government for Afghanistan. And the Iranians seemed eager to help in more tactical ways as well. They had intimate knowledge of Taliban strategic capabilities and they wanted to share it with the Americans.
One day during the U.S. bombing campaign, Mann and her Iranian counterparts were sitting around the wooden conference table speculating about the future Afghani constitution. Suddenly the Iranian who knew so much about intelligence matters started pounding on the table. "Enough of that!" he shouted, unfurling a map of Afghanistan. Here was a place the Americans needed to bomb. And here, and here, he angrily jabbed his finger at the map.
Leverett spent those days in his office at the State Department building, watching the revolution in the Middle East and coming up with plans on how to capture the lightning. Suddenly countries like Syria and Libya and Sudan and Iran were coming forward with offers of help, which raised a vital question -- should they stay on the same enemies list as North Korea and Iraq, or could there be a new slot for "friendly" sponsors of terror?
As a CIA analyst, Leverett had come to the view that Middle Eastern terrorism was more tactical than religious. Syria wanted the Golan Heights back and didn't have the military strength to put up a serious fight against Israel, so it relied on "asymmetrical methods." Accepting this idea meant that nations like Syria weren't locked in a fanatic mind-set, that they could evolve to use new methods, so Leverett told Powell to seize the moment and draw up a "road map" to peace for the problem countries of the Middle East -- expel your terrorist groups and stop trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, and we will take you off the sponsors-of-terrorism list and start a new era of cooperation.
That December, just after the triumph over Afghanistan, Powell took the idea to the White House. The occasion was the regular "deputies meeting" at the Situation Room. Gathered around the table were the deputy secretary of state, the deputy secretary of defense, the deputy director of the CIA, a representative from Vice-President Cheney's office, and also the deputy national security advisor, Stephen Hadley.
Hadley hated the idea. So did the representatives from Rumsfeld and Cheney. They thought that it was a reward for bad behavior, that the sponsors of terrorism should stop just because it's the right thing to do.
After the meeting, Hadley wrote up a brief memo that came to be known as Hadley's Rules:
If a state like Syria or Iran offers specific assistance, we will take it without offering anything in return. We will accept it without strings or promises. We won't try to build on it.
Leverett thought that was simply nutty. To strike postures of moral purity, they were throwing away a chance for real progress. But just a few days later, Condoleezza Rice called him into her office, warming him up with talk of how classical music shaped their childhoods. As he told her about the year he spent studying classical piano at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Leverett felt a real connection. Then she said she was looking for someone to take the job of senior director of Mideast affairs at the National Security Council, someone who would take a real leadership role on the Palestinian issue. Big changes were coming in 2002.
He repeated his firm belief that the White House had to draw up a road map with real solutions to the division of Jerusalem and the problem of refugees, something with final borders. That was the only remedy to the crisis in the Middle East.
Just after the New Year, Rice called and offered him the job.
The bowl of grapes is empty and the plate of cheese moves to the center of the table. Leverett's teenage son comes in with questions about a teacher. Periodically, Mann interrupts herself. "This is off the record," she says. "This is going to have to be on background."
She's not allowed to talk about confidential documents or intelligence matters, but the topic of her negotiations with the Iranians is especially touchy.
"As far as they're concerned, the whole idea that there were talks is something I shouldn't even be talking about," she says.
All ranks and ranking are out. "They don't want there to be anything about the level of the talks or who was involved."
"They won't even let us say something like 'senior' or 'important,' 'high-ranking,' or 'high-level,' " Leverett says.