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If Nixon Can Go to China ...

Why can't Obama go to Iran? Because in Washington, good ideas can often be toxic.


More than a technical problem: An Iranian uranium conversion facility. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Let’s face it: No one has a good solution for the problem of Iran. The mullahs have been in power for 33 years. There are few signs the regime is disintegrating. And its nuclear officials are unbowed; plutonium production is expected to come on line in 2014. Despite the toughest multilateral sanctions ever—including an oil embargo—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rebuffed a U.S. offer to talk directly.

What to do? Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, husband-and-wife renegade former officials in the George W. Bush administration, have an idea. President Obama should execute a Nixon-in-China approach with Tehran: Leap 180 degrees from a policy of isolation to all-out engagement. So they argue in their new book, Going to Tehran, which the Leveretts touted at an event last week at a Washington think tank. Maybe they have a point, but the Leveretts don’t stop there. They say accommodation is imperative because Tehran is gaining strength (despite the imminent loss of its only ally, Syria’s besieged Bashar al-Assad); the legitimacy of the regime is unquestioned (the once-powerful “Green” democracy movement was always marginal, they say); and Washington has no choice but to embrace the mullahs. Besides, are the mullahs really so much worse than we are? “The U.S. government simply has no credibility to address human-rights issues in Iran,” Flynt Leverett said.


It seemed a bit much. A few days after the couple’s talk, Maziar Bahari, my former Newsweek colleague and a filmmaker, debuted his new movie, Forced Confessions. In riveting interviews, he describes how secret police have turned Iran into a brutal world of Kafkaesque detentions and tortured confessions. Bahari was put on public display in 2009 and forced to state that foreign agents incited the Green movement—evidence the regime was actually terrified of the uprising. Reality check! Flynt and Hillary did not attend the screening.

The Leveretts have now spent years pushing ever harder for engagement and sounding ever more like apologists for Tehran. In so doing, they’ve fallen into an old Washington trap. Conventional wisdom in the nation’s capital is a castle wall that often seems unbreachable. In their eagerness to break through—to have their not-unreasonable policy proposal be taken seriously—the Leveretts have overstated their case so absurdly that they have discredited the same kind of fresh approach for anyone else. Who can advocate engagement with Iran after the Flynt-and-Hillary show?

This sort of overreach happens too much in Washington. In 2007, two respected professors, Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, published The Israel Lobby, to address what everyone in Washington knows to be true (and which, unhappily for him, Chuck Hagel had the guts to say): The powerful political and lobbying interests in support of Israel have outsized importance in U.S. foreign policy, forcing officials to pretend that American and Israeli national interests are always aligned, when clearly they are not.


As with Iran, this is a politically sensitive subject that critics are obliged to get right. When you shoot at a king, you must kill him, and Walt and Mearsheimer did not. By blaming the Israel lobby, without much evidence, for most bad things in U.S. foreign policy (including the 2003 Iraq invasion), they not only shot themselves down but also ensured that no one would make such an argument again for a long time. The book was such a shoddy, exaggerated piece of work that its impact recalled what President Kennedy said about the Alabama sheriff who turned fire hoses and dogs on black children in 1963: “The civil-rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor.” In the same way, the Israel lobby could extend its gratitude to Walt and Mearsheimer, and Iran hawks can thank the Leveretts.

Unfortunately, we still need new thinking on both Iran and Israel, and the two issues are linked. America cannot engage Iran, in part, because of Tehran’s appalling rhetoric about the Jewish state. Meanwhile, Israel’s disastrous stalemate with the Palestinians (it refuses to negotiate with Hamas) makes it a constant target in the Muslim world. As the years tick away without a resolution, Israel may be edging closer to a kind of demographic demise; even many Israelis fear turning into an “apartheid” state with a Jewish minority surrounded by a majority of Palestinians and Arabs. Yet in Washington, successive administrations have shied away from a dramatic rethinking.

The Iran nuclear drama has dragged on for almost a decade, with no end in sight. Negotiations, sanctions, military threats—nothing has worked. Engagement might be at least worth considering. I concluded this myself on a 2007 trip to Iran, during which I spoke to many dissidents openly and realized that the regime showed no signs of collapse. Under certain conditions, Iran might even be willing to cease building a bomb. “Iran would like to have the technology, and that is enough for deterrence,” S.M.H. Adeli, Iran’s moderate, urbane former ambassador to London, told me then.

And yet the idea of a president engaging Iran, as Nixon once did with Communist China, remains toxic. This is the frozen environment that both Defense Secretary Hagel—who was hammered during his confirmation hearings for daring to offer fresh views on both issues—and Secretary of State John Kerry will face in the years ahead. It is hardly all the fault of the Leveretts, or of Walt and Mearsheimer, but America clearly needs better dissidents.

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