- Served as a Middle East and counterterrorism expert at the State Department from 2000-2002
- Served as senior director for Middle East affairs on the U.S. National Security Council in 2002-2003
- Was an advisor to Democratic Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign
- Apologist for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Born March 6, 1958 in Memphis, Tennessee, Flynt Leverett holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University. From 1992 to 2000, he worked as a senior analyst for the CIA. From 2000 to 2002, he was a Middle East and counterterrorism expert on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. From March 2002 to March 2003, he served as the senior director for Middle East affairs on the U.S. National Security Council. Leverett left the Bush administration in the spring of 2003 because of disagreements regarding U.S. Policy vis à vis the Middle East and the war on terror generally.
After leaving government service, Leverett served as an advisor to Democratic Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, and then became a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. After that, he was named as director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative at the New America Foundation, a post he continues to hold. He is also a consultant to the World Economic Forum and the Club of Madrid; a peer reviewer for the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook; and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Leverett believes that through good-faith negotiations, the United States can make substantive diplomatic progress with the government of Iran, which has been extremely hostile toward the U.S. ever since the Khomeini-led Islamic revolution of 1979. Leverett maintains that America's failure, thus far, to achieve “a real diplomatic settlement” on the crucial issue of Iran's nuclear (uranium enrichment) program has been due largely to inflexibility on the part of all U.S. presidential administrations since Reagan's. “The historical record,” says Leverett, “is that it is typically the American administration which pulls the plug on the tactical cooperation either because of domestic political blowback in the United States or because of some perceived Iranian provocation in another arena that is not connected to the issue on which the United States and Iran are cooperating..”
One particularly significant squandered opportunity for improved U.S.-Iran relations, according to Leverett, took place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Tehran, signaling its desire to initiate “a broad strategic conversation” with America, "deported hundreds of [al] Qaeda and Taliban operatives who had sought sanctuary in Iran, and also helped [the U.S.] establish the new Afghan government." "It was Washington, not Tehran, that arbitrarily ended" this period of promise, Leverett contends. Especially damaging, he says, was President Bush's 2002 reference to Iran as part of the “axis of evil.”
Leverett adds that during the early stages of the Iraq War in 2003, Iran made further diplomatic overtures to the U.S. which President Bush similarly ignored:
“The Iranians wanted us to turn over the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK) cadres that were in Iraq. The MEK, of course, is still listed by us as a foreign terrorist organization and we’d been pressing the Iranians over the presence of some al-Qaeda operatives in Iranian territory. And I think at the tactical level, the Iranians wanted to try and make a deal on the MEK for al-Qaeda. At a more strategic level, I think the Iranians were genuinely interested in trying to reach some sort of strategic understanding with the United States ...”
Leverett notes further that when Iran “ended a nearly two-year voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment” in 2006, George W. Bush reflexively pressured the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “to send Iran's nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council, which duly imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.” In Leverett's estimation, Bush's actions were provocative and they substantially raised “the risks of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran.”
Leverett derided President Bush and his advisers as “a bunch of neo-cons” who refused to bargain in good faith with Tehran because they “wanted regime change [there] and nothing else.” He chastised Bush for allegedly viewing the Iranian regime as a “fundamentally illegitimate” and “unelected” cadre of “clerical authorities” who were “thwarting the clearly expressed will of the Iranian people for a more open, participatory political system, for more political, social, intellectual, and cultural freedom.”
But Leverett rejects Bush's contention that the current regime in Tehran is vulnerable due to widespread public dissatisfaction. Iran, Leverett says:
"is not a place that is on the verge of revolution. They had a revolution 31 years ago. They don’t want another one. We may not like it; we may not understand it; but most Iranians want to live in the Islamic Republic of Iran.... They don’t want that Islamic adjective taken out of the name of the country. We need to come to terms with that, and we need to drop fantasies that internal political change in Iran is going to solve our foreign policy problems in the Middle East.”
In the 2008 presidential election, Leverett voted for Barack Obama, hoping that he and his national security team could “achieve a breakthrough” with Iran by taking an approach that was “fundamentally different” from the purportedly obstinate “posture that for 30 years has proved increasingly damaging to the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East.”
In Leverett's estimation, Obama got off to a good start when, in the third month of his presidency, he expressed a “willingness to deal with Iran on the 'basis of mutual interest' in an atmosphere of 'mutual respect.'” Those sentiments, said Leverett, were “particularly well received” by political leaders in Tehran.
“Unfortunately,” Leverett lamented in mid-2009, Iranian authorities soon curbed their enthusiasm for Obama when the latter “back[ed] away from the bold steps required to achieve strategic, Nixon-to-China-type rapprochement with Tehran.” Specifically, Leverett explained, “the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.” In Leverett's calculus, it was entirely understandable for the Iranian government to harbor “legitimate concern about American intentions” that seemed to be “ultimately hostile,” and for the ruling mullahs to have a “fundamentally defensive reaction to an American government campaign to bring about regime change.”
Leverett has criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a negative force in the dialog with Iran because Mrs. Clinton, as a senator and presidential candidate in 2008, once said that she would order the U.S. military to “totally obliterate” Iran if that nation were to attack Israel. Leverett also objects to the fact that as Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton “has told a number of allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf that she is skeptical that diplomacy with Iran will prove fruitful and [she] testified to Congress that negotiations are primarily useful to garner support for 'crippling' multilateral sanctions against Iran.”
Leverett is even more vexed by the fact that the Obama State Department's point man for Iran policy is Dennis Ross, who, during the latter years of the Bush administration, said that while negotiations with Iran would likely prove fruitless, they were nonetheless a necessary formality because if a subsequent U.S. President deemed it necessary to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, he or she would be better able to justify such a measure if "diplomacy" had already been tried. “Iranian officials,” says Leverett, “are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views.”
According to Leverett, President Obama could “fix our Iran policy” if he were willing to do three major things: (a) “commit not to use force to change the borders or the form of government of the Islamic Republic”; (b) “accept that Iran will continue enriching uranium, and that the only realistic potential resolution to the nuclear issue would leave Iran ... with an increasingly sophisticated nuclear fuel-cycle program that is carefully safeguarded to manage proliferation risks”; and (c) “accept that Iran’s relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah will continue, and be willing to work with Tehran to integrate these groups into lasting settlements of the Middle East’s core political conflicts.”
In Leverett's view, it is wrong for the U.S. to try to impose “a country-specific” ban on nuclear technology that “applie[s] to Iran but not to anybody else.” He asserts that such constraints are designed chiefly “to preserve a regional balance of power that is strongly tilted in Israel's favor.”
According to Leverett, “It is simply not analytically credible to describe the unresolved Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese tracks of the Middle East peace process as 'existential threats' to Israel. The 1978 Egypt-Israel Camp David accords effectively dispelled the prospect of Arab armies uniting to 'push the Jews into the sea.'” Yet it was precisely such unified Arab attacks against Israel that in fact occurred in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Nonetheless, Leverett dismisses the likelihood of any similar threat in the future, reasoning that “there is no amount of additional armed capabilities that would allow Palestinian and Lebanese militants to destroy Israel without also destroying the populations they are ostensibly seeking to liberate.”
Likewise, Leverett claims that “it is not analytically serious” to describe a nuclear Iran “as an existential threat to Israel or any other state.” “It is not credible,” he elaborates, to believe that Iran could be so focused on destroying Israel, “that it is collectively willing to become history's first 'suicide nation.'” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, however, has candidly stated, on numerous occasions, that “Israel must be wiped off the map,” and that “the annihilation of the Zionist regime will come.”
In Leverett's view, there is no evidence that Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election in June 2009 was illegitimate or marred by voter fraud, as many critics of his regime claimed at the time. “Ahmadinejad’s 62.6 percent of the vote in this year’s election is essentially the same as the 61.69 percent he received in the final count of the 2005 presidential election,” said Leverett shortly after the ballots had been counted. “... The shock of the 'Iran experts' over [the 2009] results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking.”
Leverett's views on the Middle East generally, and Iran specifically, are shared by his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett. Hillary is a Harvard Law School graduate who is currently the chief executive officer of Stratega, a political risk consulting firm. From 2001-2003, she served as director for Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council. She also spent more than ten years working for the U.S. State Department, in such roles as: (a) Middle East expert for the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff, and (b) political adviser on the Middle East, Sudan, and Central Asia at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. In addition, she was an Associate Director on Middle East issues at the National Security Council from 1993-1994, and a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In February 2010, The New Republic described Flynt and Hillary Leverett as “the most prominent voices in the U.S. media arguing that [Ahmadinejad] was legitimately reelected last June, and that the opposition Green Movement is a flash in the pan.”
In fact, the Leveretts are outright apologists for Ahmadinejad, as George Galloway was for Saddam Hussein. Flynt Leverett admires Ahmadinejad as both “a quite intelligent man” with “really extraordinary political skills” on the one hand, and a charismatic figure who “knows how to work a room” on the other. In the fall of 2009, Leverett and his wife -- along with a group of specially invited academics and foreign policy professionals -- paid a visit to the Iranian president during the latter's trip to New York City. Mr. Leverett would later recall Ahmadinejad as someone who, in such a setting, “addresses every person by name” and makes “a serious effort to address everyone’s issue.” “It was really striking,” added Leverett, “the retail politics aspect.”