U.S. Must ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Partner’ with Iran, Former NSC Analysts Say at Liberal Think Tank

By Matthew Hadro | October 7, 2008 | 7:12 PM EDT

Washington (CNSNews.com) – The U.S. must pursue a “grand bargain with Iran” regardless of whether the next president meets with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, two former senior analysts for Middle Eastern affairs at the National Security Council warned Tuesday.
Flynt Leverett said he “doesn’t care” who the next president is -- or whether he meets with Ahmadinejad – as long as the U.S. and Iran normalize relations.
“The point is, what are American interests in this region, and what is going to help advance those interests? I really do not understand how improving relations with Iran is not going to help America’s position,” Leverett told CNSNews.com. “Whether the next president ends up going to Tehran, I don’t care.”
Leverett’s comments came at a Washington, D.C. forum conducted by the New America Foundation, a liberal think-tank in Washington. D.C.  A former senior director of  Middle Eastern affairs at the National Security Council, Leverett appeared along with his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett, a former Foreign Service officer and NSC analyst who is now a government consultant on the Middle East. 
In response to a question from CNSNews.com, Leverett, now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said it was “strategically vacuous” whether a new President Obama or President McCain would meet with the Iranian leader.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee, has indicated in the past that he is not opposed to meeting with Ahmadinejad. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has dismissed the idea.   
Mann Leverett told CNSNews.com that what matters is that they U.S. open a dialogue with Iran, not whether the next president meets with his Iranian counterpart.
“The critical question is the comprehensive nature of the agenda and the thorough-going nature of the rapprochement,” she said. 
The husband-and-wife team laid out their vision for the proposed ‘grand bargain’ -- a plan that they said would encompass all U.S.-Iranian issues, resolving all of them in one fell swoop.
The bargain would include addressing Iranian support for terrorist organizations, including Hizbollah, as well as Iran’s nuclear program and its interference in Iraq.  In return, the U.S. would address Iranian security concerns, recognize the legitimacy of Iran’s theocratic regime, and offer a return to normalized diplomatic relations.
Restoring relations with Iran, they said, would benefit the United States because it would open Iran’s oil reserves, which are second only to Saudi Arabia, and give the U.S. “a new strategic partner” in the Middle East. 
The Iranians, the Leveretts jointly assured, act as a “rational actor” on the world stage – a nation that is perfectly capable of constructively engaging the U.S. on bilateral issues.
As evidence of this, the pair cited their issue-level experience working with Iran while at the NSC. Iran’s cooperation during the US-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2003, as well as its continued involvement in talks over its nuclear program, despite continued U.S.-backed sanctions, demonstrates Iran’s willingness to work with the U.S., they said.
But a report published last month by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), however, identified Iran as “the most active sponsor of state terrorism,” and highlighted the Islamic nation’s support of both Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The same report went on to state that “the United States and Iran are now engaged in a ‘proxy war’ inside Iraq.” 
A second CRS report, titled “Iran’s Activities and Influence in Iraq,” also published in September, documents how Iran has supplied Shi’ite militias with military training, money, and explosives, including the infamous Badr Brigade -- the violent militia headed by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
When asked about these and other examples of Iran actively working against -- rather than with -- the United States, the analyst responded by dismissing the reports as “one sided” and “selective.”
“If you look at the body of his (Ayatollah Khamenei) statements about relations with the U.S., he has never ruled out an improvement of relations with the United States, he has indicated, at times, that this would be in Iranian interests,” Leverett said.
Though pressed to explain how it is possible to reconcile his statements with Iran’s anti-U.S. actions and rhetoric, Leverett said that the U.S. must negotiate with the Iranians despite their actions. He added that Iran’s cooperation behind the scenes was more significant than its anti-U.S. rhetoric or support for Iraqi militias.
“You go to the negotiating table with them, and you get the deal,” he said. “I think that actions matter more than rhetoric in the end,” Leverett said.