The Secret History of the Impending War with Iran That the White House Doesn't Want You to Know
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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.
By John H. Richardson (more from this author)
10/18/2007, 1:34 PM
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.
Bush waited. Three weeks later, it was time for his 2002 State of the Union address. Mann spent the morning in a meeting with Condoleezza Rice and the new president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who kept asking Rice for an expanded international peacekeeping force. Rice kept saying that the Afghans would have to solve their own problems. Then they went off to join the president's motorcade and Mann headed back to her office to watch the speech on TV.
That was the speech in which Bush linked Iran to Iraq and North Korea with a memorable phrase:
"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."
The Iranians had been engaging in high-level diplomacy with the American government for more than a year, so the phrase was shocking and profound.
Four more revealing pages can be accessed HERE.