On Sept. 23 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on a visit to U.N. headquarters in New York, told the U.N.’s General Assembly that “some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack” that killed 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001. Within hours of Ahmadinejad’s speech, which prompted walkouts by U.N diplomats from the United States, Britain, Sweden, Australia, Belgium, Uruguay, and Spain, as well as a condemnation by President Obama, who declared that Ahmadinejad’s remarks were “offensive” and “inexcusable,” the Iranian president was sitting down to a chit-chat at a New York hotel with—graduate students at Yale. The meeting—at which any discussion of 9/11 or what Ahmadinejad had said about it, was off-limits—had been arranged by their teacher, Hillary Mann Leverett, one of eight senior fellows at Yale’s brand-new Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
Indeed, the meeting with Ahmadinejad and several of his aides could be said to have been a kickoff event for the Jackson Institute, which had celebrated its official opening only four days before, on Sept. 19. Funded with a $50 million gift in 2009—one of the largest ever donated to Yale–from former pharmaceutical CEO John Jackson, Yale ’67, and his wife, the poet Susan Jackson, the stated aim of the institute is “training tomorrow’s global leaders,” as a headline on the institute’s website states. The Jackson Institute will oversee Yale’s undergraduate major in international relations and several graduate programs. Yet there seems something odd about a global-leader training program that within less than a week of its inception featured a softball session with perhaps the most vitriolic of today’s global leaders, one who, besides elaborating in his U.N. speech on various conspiracy theories about the events of the 9/11 massacre, is notorious for denying the Holocaust and declaring that there are no gays in Iran (not surprising, because the penalty for homosexuality there is death).
It also seems odd that two of the Jackson Center’s eight senior fellows—a full fourth of the total—consist of Leverett and her husband, Flynt Leverett, director of the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that generally advocates a reduced U.S. military presence in the Islamic world. Both Leveretts have careers stretching back several years of tireless article-writing that defends the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s government and blames the United States and Israel, not Iran, for Iran’s nuclear buildup and the generally frosty relations between Iran and the West.
According to several stories in the Yale Daily News about Ahmadinejad’s Sept. 23 meeting with Leverett’s graduate seminar on “U.S.-Iranian diplomacy,” tough questions to the Iranian president were not to be asked. For example, Ahmadinejad “declined to answer a question about the biggest regret from his presidency,” the Yalie Daily reported from interviews with several seminar members.
Iran’s decades-long abominable human-rights record (one of the latest incidents is the Sept. 28 sentencing of 35-year-old Hossein Derakhshan to nearly 20 years in prison for “insulting Islamic sanctities” by blogging and encouraging others to blog) did not appear to be a permissible discussion topic. Instead, Ahmadinejad talked about the “use of rhetoric” in foreign policy and “his vision for an approach to international relations governed by justice and righteousness,” students told the Yale Daily News. To their credit, at least a few of Leverett’s students expressed skepticism about Ahmadinejad’s statements (one said that “justice in the international system sounds great, but not the kind of justice he is looking for,” and another refused to attend the meeting altogether because she did not want to validate the ruling regime). Leverett herself told the paper that she thought her students came away from the meeting realizing that Ahmadinejad is “not a crazy, irrational leader” that she hoped her students understood “that it will take a lot more from the U.S. if we want to have a real policy of engagement with Iraq.”
That statement of Leverett’s is exactly the problem—because Leverett and her husband have spent the last few years scolding the United States in public over its insufficiently “engaging” stance toward Iraq in general and Ahmadinejad in particular. The two are entitled to their opinions, of course, and both have solid government careers specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. Yet you have to wonder about the academic integrity of an Ivy League institute that has turned over a substantial portion of its curriculum to people espousing a highly tendentious point of view. Flynt Leverett, for example, developed the idea, in a 2006 monograph, of a “grand bargain” with Iran. The idea was that the U.S. would normalize diplomatic relations with Iran (broken off after the mullahs’ revolution in 1979) and halt its current policy of blocking investments there, in return for which Iran would “accept meaningful restraints on”—although not necessarily halt—its nuclear activities, he wrote in a 2006 op-ed article for the New York Times. The purpose of the grand bargain would be—or so Flynt Leverett hoped–lucrative U.S. participation in Iranian oil and gas production.
In 2008 Hillary Leverett wrote a guest post for the Washington Note, a blog published by her husband’s boss Steve Clemons, executive vice president of the New America Foundation and a vocal critic of former President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, criticizing the Bush administration for failing to make a different kind of deal with Iran, in which Tehran would have turned over suspected Al Qaeda terrorists seeking refuge in Iran if the U.S. would turn over to Tehran members of the People’s Mojahedin, a group of anti-government Iranian militants operating out of Iraq.
By 2009 the Leveretts had become unabashed apologists for Ahmadinejad, who had become president in 2005. After Ahmadinejad won reelection in June 2009 amid widespread news reports of election fraud that included missing ballots and closed polling places, the couple jointly authored an article for the website Politico titled “Ahmadinejad won. Get over it.”
The Leveretts argued that that Ahmadinejad had fairly won reelection to the presidency in July 2009, even though “Iran’s elections are not fair by Western standards,” as they conceded. Skipping over the numerous “irregularities” that even the Leveretts agreed had marred the balloting, the couple cited a May 2009 poll conducted by—yes, the New American Foundation, together with Terror Free Tomorrow. The poll showed Ahmadinejad ahead of his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, by a 2-1 margin, which the Leveretts billed as an indication of the president’s overwhelming popular support. Washington Post writer Jon Cohen later criticized the poll for failing to account for the fact that 52 percent of those polled either had no opinion about the two leading candidates or otherwise supported neither. Nonetheless the Leveretts favorably compared the “flaws,” as they called them, in Iran’s electoral process to “the U.S. presidential election in Florida in 2000.”
In September 2009 the Leveretts set up their own blog, The Race for Iran. Declaring that “the Islamic Republic [of Iran] has consolidated a role as de facto leader of resistance to America’s hegemonic posture and aspirations across the broader Middle East—in the Persian Gulf, the Arab-Israeli arena, Afghanistan, and Central Asia,” the Leveretts again pressed their case for a more “productive”—that is, concession-laden–U.S. policy toward Ahmadinejad and his government. The Leveretts’ blog also has expanded the scope of its Mideast-policy criticism to include Israel as well as the U.S. In a June 3 entry the Leveretts defended Turkey’s participation in the May 31 Gaza flotilla organized by pro-Palestinian activists and aggressively intercepted by the Israelis (with nine resulting deaths) as an effort to “impose some limits on Israel’s absolute freedom to use military force unilaterally, wherever it wants, and for whatever purpose it favors.” The Leveretts insisted that Israel’s concern over, say, the rocket-lobbing Hamas militants who control Gaza, the Turkish government’s apparent new willingness to support such militants, and Iran’s growing nuclear arsenal “is not based on rational analysis of actual physical threats. All of these arguments are directed towards the preservation of Israel’s regional hegemony, embodied in its unchallenged freedom of military action in the Middle East.”
A January 6, 2010, op-ed by the Leveretts in the New York Times pooh-poohed a wave of protests against the Ahamadinejad government in cities across Iran in late December after the death of a prominent dissident cleric, protests that resulted in ten deaths and 300 arrests. (In March the Iranian government announced plans to execute six of the arrestees.) “Another Iranian Revolution? Not Likely” was the title of the Leveretts’ piece, which criticized Obama for conducting only “half-hearted efforts at diplomacy” that “have given engagement a bad name.” And in a lengthy piece for the Huffington Post website published on September 29, less than a week after Ahmadinejad offered his 9/11 speculations to the U.N., the Leveretts accused the U.S., and the Obama administration in particular, of “fixating on Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric” and supporting “Israel’s assertion of military hegemony” rather than—yes, again—“realigning previously antagonistic relations with important countries,” e.g. Iran. The Leveretts maintained that Israeli opposition to Iran’s nuclear arsenal stemmed not so much from the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear strike against Israel as from the possibility that Israeli citizens might leave the country because they were afraid of a nuclear strike against Israel. Not to worry, wrote the Leveretts, noting that about 30,000 Jews currently live in Iran—amid a population of 70 million Muslims (before the 1979 revolution there were 80,000 Jews in Iran).
Meanwhile Iran’s crackdown on potential opposition has continued unabated. During the very week of Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech security forces incarcerated two dissident journalists, the New York Times reported—bringing the number of arrests of journalists, activists, and government officials in the wake of the 2009 elections up to about 500. Both journalists, Emadeddin Baghi and Shiva Nazar-Ahahri, founder of the Tehran-based Committee of Human Rights Reporters, received six-year prison sentences for such crimes as acts “against national security,” “inciting public opinion,” and “waging war against God” (Nazar-Ahari was also ordered to pay a $400 fine in lieu of 76 lashes.)
The Leveretts, as I said above, are certainly entitled to incite their own public opinion in favor of friendlier relations with Ahmadinead’s government, and perhaps they are correct in their assertion that it may be in America’s best interest to try to gain some control over Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves. Furthermore, they are not the first Yale faculty members to escort their classes to sit-downs with the Iranian president on his now-customary annual trip to the U.N. with his entourage. In September 2009 Maximilian Terhalle, a visiting political-science lecturer at Yale, brought 17 of his students to a private reception with Ahmadinejad in New York after delegates had walked out of one of his incendiary speeches. Still, isn’t one Leverett plenty among only eight senior fellows at the Jackson Institute?
My effort to interview Jim Levinsohn, director of the Jackson Institute, about Hillary Leverett’s arranging for her class’s Sept. 23 meeting with Ahmadinejad was unsuccessful. Levinsohn did, however, tell a reporter for the Yale Daily News that the institute’s main aim in hiring fellows, as the Yalie Daily reported, is ‘to expose students to a wide range of views.” “Are we looking for controversial individuals? No,” he told the newspaper. “We are looking for really interesting people who can speak to the issues of the day.”
Hillary Leverett, by contrast, e-mailed me with lengthy written answers to a series of e-mailed questions I posed her and also told me, “I expect you to publish my answers in full, without editing or distorting them.” I wrote her back telling her that space did not permit me to include her full replies in this article but that I would provide a link to an Oct. 1 post on her own Race for Iran blog that contains both my questions and her complete answers (the link is here). Readers of both pieces may decide for themselves whether Leverett’s questioning my “professionalism” in inquiring about human-rights violations in Iraq and her assertion that I am one of a number of “neoconservative propagandists” (along with a “Michael Rubin” whose name is not familiar to me) make sense.
Leverett did write this regarding Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric: “Both the United States and Israel are in a virtual state of war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ahmadinejad is very careful and deliberate in choosing what he says in the context of this virtual state of war. Among other things, polling data from the Middle East clearly indicate that his statements about Israel, the Holocaust, and the 9/11 attacks have bolstered popular support across the Muslim world—not necessarily elite support, but popular support—for Iran’s position. As Americans we need to understand that what Ahmadinejad says calls into question, for many in the Middle East, the entire legitimacy of U.S. and Israeli actions there. This is a strategy which yields tangible strategic gains for Iran.”
Again, Leverett may well be correct about Ahmadinejad’s strategic acumen and his rhetorical appeal to broad swathes of the Muslim world. After all, there was dancing in the streets of East Jerusalem over the clips of 3,000 Americans incinerated to fine dust on Sept. 11, 2011. For some people that ought to mean taking nuclear-armed Iran and its new, strategically acquired allies seriously as global menaces. For Hillary and Flynt Leverett it means going along to get along—and coming across as Ahmadinejad’s unpaid public-relations firm on the pages of the New York Times. The question isn’t whether the Leveretts aren’t well-informed about the contents of the Iranian president’s head. It’s whether a brand-new institute that is supposed to be the focal point of study of international relations at a prestigious Ivy League university ought to be letting the Leveretts be the only voice heard when it comes to the training of young people for careers in dealing with the Mideast.