The Secret History of the Impending War with Iran That the White House Doesn’t Want You to Know
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.
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.
That same day, in Washington, on the seventh floor of the State Department building, a security guard opened the door of Leverett’s office and told him they were evacuating the building. Leverett was Powell’s specialist on terrorist states like Syria and Libya, so he knew the world was about to go through a dramatic change. As he joined the people milling on the sidewalk, his mind was already racing.
Then he got a call summoning him back to Foggy Bottom. At the entrance to a specially fortified office, he showed his badge to the guards and passed into a windowless conference room. There were about a dozen people there, Powell’s top foreign-policy planners. Powell told them that their first job was to make plans to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The second job was to rally allies. That meant detailed strategies for approaching other nations — in some cases, Powell could make the approach, in others the president would have to make the call. Then Powell left them to work through the night.
At 5:30 a.m. on September 12, they walked the list to the office of the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage. Powell took it straight to the White House.
Mann and Leverett didn’t know each other then, but they were already traveling down parallel tracks. Months before September 11, Mann had been negotiating with the Iranian diplomat at the UN. After the attacks, the meetings continued, sometimes alone and sometimes with their Russian counterpart sitting in. Soon they traded the conference room for the Delegates’ Lounge, an airy two-story bar with ashtrays for all the foreigners who were used to smoking indoors. One day, up on the second floor where the windows overlooked the East River, the diplomat told her that Iran was ready to cooperate unconditionally, a phrase that had seismic diplomatic implications. Unconditional talks are what the U.S. had been demanding as a precondition to any official diplomatic contact between the U.S. and Iran. And it would be the first chance since the Islamic revolution for any kind of rapprochement. “It was revolutionary,” Mann says. “It could have changed the world.”
A few weeks later, after signing on to Condoleezza Rice’s staff as the new Iran expert in the National Security Council, Mann flew to Europe with Ryan Crocker — then a deputy assistant secretary of state — to hold talks with a team of Iranian diplomats. Meeting in a light-filled conference room at the old UN building in Geneva, they hammered out plans for Iranian help in the war against the Taliban. The Iranians agreed to provide assistance if any American was shot down near their territory, agreed to let the U.S. send food in through their border, and even agreed to restrain some “really bad Afghanis,” like a rabidly anti-American warlord named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, quietly putting him under house arrest in Tehran. These were significant concessions. At the same time, special envoy James Dobbins was having very public and warm discussions in Bonn with the Iranian deputy foreign minister as they worked together to set up a new government for Afghanistan. And the Iranians seemed eager to help in more tactical ways as well. They had intimate knowledge of Taliban strategic capabilities and they wanted to share it with the Americans.
One day during the U.S. bombing campaign, Mann and her Iranian counterparts were sitting around the wooden conference table speculating about the future Afghani constitution. Suddenly the Iranian who knew so much about intelligence matters started pounding on the table. “Enough of that!” he shouted, unfurling a map of Afghanistan. Here was a place the Americans needed to bomb. And here, and here, he angrily jabbed his finger at the map.
Leverett spent those days in his office at the State Department building, watching the revolution in the Middle East and coming up with plans on how to capture the lightning. Suddenly countries like Syria and Libya and Sudan and Iran were coming forward with offers of help, which raised a vital question — should they stay on the same enemies list as North Korea and Iraq, or could there be a new slot for “friendly” sponsors of terror?
As a CIA analyst, Leverett had come to the view that Middle Eastern terrorism was more tactical than religious. Syria wanted the Golan Heights back and didn’t have the military strength to put up a serious fight against Israel, so it relied on “asymmetrical methods.” Accepting this idea meant that nations like Syria weren’t locked in a fanatic mind-set, that they could evolve to use new methods, so Leverett told Powell to seize the moment and draw up a “road map” to peace for the problem countries of the Middle East — expel your terrorist groups and stop trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, and we will take you off the sponsors-of-terrorism list and start a new era of cooperation.
That December, just after the triumph over Afghanistan, Powell took the idea to the White House. The occasion was the regular “deputies meeting” at the Situation Room. Gathered around the table were the deputy secretary of state, the deputy secretary of defense, the deputy director of the CIA, a representative from Vice-President Cheney’s office, and also the deputy national security advisor, Stephen Hadley.
Hadley hated the idea. So did the representatives from Rumsfeld and Cheney. They thought that it was a reward for bad behavior, that the sponsors of terrorism should stop just because it’s the right thing to do.
After the meeting, Hadley wrote up a brief memo that came to be known as Hadley’s Rules:
If a state like Syria or Iran offers specific assistance, we will take it without offering anything in return. We will accept it without strings or promises. We won’t try to build on it.
Leverett thought that was simply nutty. To strike postures of moral purity, they were throwing away a chance for real progress. But just a few days later, Condoleezza Rice called him into her office, warming him up with talk of how classical music shaped their childhoods. As he told her about the year he spent studying classical piano at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Leverett felt a real connection. Then she said she was looking for someone to take the job of senior director of Mideast affairs at the National Security Council, someone who would take a real leadership role on the Palestinian issue. Big changes were coming in 2002.
He repeated his firm belief that the White House had to draw up a road map with real solutions to the division of Jerusalem and the problem of refugees, something with final borders. That was the only remedy to the crisis in the Middle East.
Just after the New Year, Rice called and offered him the job.
The bowl of grapes is empty and the plate of cheese moves to the center of the table. Leverett’s teenage son comes in with questions about a teacher. Periodically, Mann interrupts herself. “This is off the record,” she says. “This is going to have to be on background.”
She’s not allowed to talk about confidential documents or intelligence matters, but the topic of her negotiations with the Iranians is especially touchy.
“As far as they’re concerned, the whole idea that there were talks is something I shouldn’t even be talking about,” she says.
All ranks and ranking are out. “They don’t want there to be anything about the level of the talks or who was involved.”
“They won’t even let us say something like ‘senior’ or ‘important,’ ‘high-ranking,’ or ‘high-level,'” Leverett says.
But the important thing is that the Iranians agreed to talk unconditionally, Mann says. “They specifically told me time and again that they were doing this because they understood the impact of this attack on the U.S., and they thought that if they helped us unconditionally, that would be the way to change the dynamic for the first time in twenty-five years.”
She believed them.
But while Leverett was still moving into the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, Mann was wrapped up in the crisis over a ship called the Karin A that left Iran loaded with fifty tons of weapons. According to the Israeli navy, which intercepted the Karin A in the Red Sea, it was headed for the PLO. In staff meetings at the White House, Mann argued for caution. The Iranian government probably didn’t even know about the arms shipments. It was issuing official denials in the most passionate way, even sending its deputy foreign minister onto Fox News to say “categorically” that “all segments of the Iranian government” had nothing to do with the arms shipment, which meant the “total government, not simply President Khatami’s administration.”
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.
After that, the Iranian diplomats skipped the monthly meeting in Geneva. But they came again in March. And so did Mann. “They said they had put their necks out to talk to us and they were taking big risks with their careers and their families and their lives,” Mann says.
The secret negotiations with Iran continued, every month for another year.
Leverett plunged right into a dramatic new peace proposal floated by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Calling for “full normalization” in exchange for “full withdrawal” from the occupied territories, Abdullah promised to rally all the Arab nations to a final settlement with Israel. In his brand-new third-floor office at the Old Executive Office Building, a tiny room with a very high ceiling, Leverett began hammering out the details with Abdullah’s foreign-policy advisor, Adel Al-Jubeir. When Ariel Sharon said that a return to the ’67 borders was unacceptable, Al-Jubeir said the Saudis didn’t want to be in the “real estate business” — if the Palestinians agreed to border modifications, the Saudis could hardly refuse them. Al-Jubeir believed he had something that might actually work.
But the White House wasn’t interested. Sharon already rejected it, Rice told Leverett.
At the Arab League meeting, Abdullah got every Arab state to sign his proposal in a unanimous vote.
The White House still wasn’t interested.
Then violence in the Palestinian territories began to increase, climaxing in an Israeli siege of Arafat’s compound. In April, Leverett accompanied Colin Powell on a tour that took them from Morocco to Egypt and Jordan and Lebanon and finally Israel. Twice they crossed the Israeli-army lines to visit Arafat under siege. Powell seemed to think he had authorization from the White House to explore what everyone was calling “political horizons,” the safely vague shorthand for a peaceful future, so on the final day Leverett holed up in a suite at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem with a group of senior American officials — the U. . ambassador to Israel, the U. S. consul general to Jerusalem, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs Bill Burns — trying to hammer out Powell’s last speech.
Then the phone rang. It was Stephen Hadley on the phone from the White House. “Tell Powell he is not authorized to talk about a political horizon,” he said. “Those are formal instructions.”
“This is a bad idea,” Leverett remembers saying. “It’s bad policy and it’s also humiliating for Powell, who has been talking to heads of state about this very issue for the last ten days.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Hadley said. “There’s too much resistance from Rumsfeld and the VP. Those are the instructions.”
So Leverett went back into the suite and asked Powell to step aside.
Powell was furious, Leverett remembers. “What is it they’re afraid of?” he demanded. “Who the hell are they afraid of?”
“I don’t know sir,” Leverett said.
In the spring, Crown Prince Abdullah flew to Texas to meet Bush at his ranch. The way Leverett remembers the story, Abdullah sat down and told Bush he was going to ask a direct question and wanted a direct answer. Are you going to do anything about the Palestinian issue? If you tell me no, if it’s too difficult, if you’re not going to give it that kind of priority, just tell me. I will understand and I will never say anything critical of you or your leadership in public, but I’m going to need to make my own judgments and my own decisions about Saudi interests.
Bush tried to stall, saying he understood his concerns and would see what he could do.
Abdullah stood up. “That’s it. This meeting is over.”
No Arab leader had ever spoken to Bush like that before, Leverett says. But Saudi Arabia was a key ally in the war on terror, vital to the continued U.S. oil supply, so Bush and Rice and Powell excused themselves into another room for a quick huddle.
When he came back, Bush gave Abdullah his word that he would deal seriously with the Palestinian issue.
“Okay,” Abdullah said. “The president of the United States has given me his word.”
So the meeting continued, ending with a famous series of photographs of Bush and Abdullah riding around the ranch in Bush’s pickup.
In a meeting at the White House a few days later, Leverett saw Powell shaking his head over Abdullah’s threat. He called it “the near-death experience.”
Bush rolled his eyes. “We sure don’t want to go through anything like that again.”
Then the king of Jordan came to Washington to see Bush. There had to be a road map for peace in Palestine, the king said. Despite the previous experience with Abdullah in Crawford, Bush seemed taken by surprise, Leverett remembers, but he listened and said that the idea of a road map seemed pretty reasonable.
So suddenly they were working on a road map. For moderate Arab states, the hope of a two-state solution would offer some political cover before Washington embarked on any invasion of Iraq. In a meeting with the king of Jordan, Leverett made a personal promise that it would be out by the end of 2002.
But nothing happened. In Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s offices, opposition came from men like John Hannah, Doug Feith, and Scooter Libby. In Rice’s office, there was Elliott Abrams. Again they said that negotiation was just a reward for bad behavior. First the Palestinians had to reject terrorism and practice democracy.
Finally, it was a bitter-cold day just after Thanksgiving and Leverett was on a family trip to the Washington Zoo, standing in front of the giraffe enclosure. The White House patched through a call from the foreign minister of Jordan, Marwan Muasher, who said that Rice had just told him the road map was off. “Do you have any idea how this has pulled the rug out from under us, from under me?” Muasher said. “I’m the one that has to go into Arab League meetings and get beat up and say, ‘No, there’s going to be a plan out by the end of the year.’ How can we ever trust you again?”
On Monday, Leverett went straight to Rice’s office for an explanation. She told him that Ariel Sharon had called early elections in Israel and asked Bush to shelve any Palestinian plan. This time Leverett couldn’t hide his exasperation. “You told the whole world you were going to put this out before Christmas,” he said. “Because one Israeli politician told you it’s going to make things politically difficult for him, you don’t put it out? Do you realize how hard that makes things for all our Arab partners?”
Rice sat impassively behind her broad desk. “If we put the road map out,” she said, “it will interfere with Israeli elections.”
“You are interfering with Israeli elections, just in another way.”
“Flynt, the decision has already been made,” Rice said.
There was also an awkward scene with the secretary of defense. They were in the Situation Room and Leverett was sitting behind Rice taking notes when suddenly Rumsfeld addressed him directly. “Why are you laughing? Did I say something funny?”
The room went silent, and Rumsfeld asked it again.
“Why are you laughing? Did I say something funny?”
“I’m sorry Mr. Secretary, I don’t think I know what you’re talking about.”
“It looks to me like you were laughing,” Rumsfeld said.
“No sir. I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I was just listening to the meeting and taking notes. Didn’t mean to disturb you.”
The meeting continued, message received.
By that time, Leverett and Mann had met and fallen in love. They got married in February 2003, went to Florida on their honeymoon, and got back just in time for the Shock and Awe bombing campaign. Leverett quit his NSC job in disgust. Mann rotated back to the State Department.
Then came the moment that would lead to an extraordinary battle with the Bush administration. It was an average morning in April, about four weeks into the war. Mann picked up her daily folder and sat down at her desk, glancing at a fax cover page. The fax was from the Swiss ambassador to Iran, which wasn’t unusual — since the U.S. had no formal relationship with Iran, the Swiss ambassador represented American interests there and often faxed over updates on what he was doing. This time he’d met with Sadeq Kharrazi, a well-connected Iranian who was the nephew of the foreign minister and son-in-law to the supreme leader. Amazingly, Kharrazi had presented the ambassador with a detailed proposal for peace in the Middle East, approved at the highest levels in Tehran.
A two-page summary was attached. Scanning it, Mann was startled by one dramatic concession after another — “decisive action” against all terrorists in Iran, an end of support for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, a promise to cease its nuclear program, and also an agreement to recognize Israel.
This was huge. Mann sat down and drafted a quick memo to her boss, Richard Haass. It was important to send a swift and positive response.
Then she heard that the White House had already made up its mind — it was going to ignore the offer. Its only response was to lodge a formal complaint with the Swiss government about their ambassador’s meddling.
A few days after that, a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia killed thirty-four people, including eight Americans, and an intelligence report said the bombers had been in phone contact with Al Qaeda members in Iran. Although it was unknown whether Tehran had anything to do with the bombing or if the terrorists were hiding out in the lawless areas near the border, Rumsfeld set the tone for the administration’s response at his next press conference. “There’s no question but that there have been and are today senior Al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy.”
Colin Powell saw Mann’s memo. A couple weeks later he approached her at a State Department reception and said, “It was a very good memo. I couldn’t sell it at the White House.”
In response to questions from Esquire, Colin Powell called Leverett “very able” and confirms much of what he says. Leverett’s account of the clash between Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah was accurate, he said. “It was a very serious moment and no one wanted to see if the Saudis were bluffing.” The same goes for the story about his speech in Israel in 2002. “I had major problems with the White House on what I wanted to say.”
On the subject of the peace offer, though, Powell was defensive. “I talked to all of my key assistants since Flynt started talking about an Iranian grand bargain, but none of us recall seeing this initiative as a grand bargain.”
On the general subject of negotiations with Iran, he responded with pointed politesse. “We talked to the Iranians quietly up until 2003. The president chose not to continue that channel.”
That is putting it mildly. In May of 2003, when the U.S. was still in the triumphant “mission accomplished” phase of the Iraq war, word started filtering out of the White House about an aggressive new Iran policy that would include efforts to destabilize the Iranian government and even to promote a popular uprising. In his first public statement on Iran policy since leaving the NSC, Leverett told The Washington Post he thought the White House was making a dangerous mistake. “What it means is we will end up with an Iran that has nuclear weapons and no dialogue with the United States.”
In the years that followed, he spoke out in dozens of newspaper editorials and a book, all making variations on the same argument — America’s approach to rogue nations was all sticks and no carrots, all economic sanctions and threats of war without any dialogue. “To bring about real change,” he argued, “we must also offer concrete benefits.” Of course states like Iran and Syria messed around in Iraq, he said. Iran was supporting the Iraqi opposition when the U.S. was still supporting Saddam Hussein. It was insane to expect them to stop when the goal of a Shiite Iraq was finally in reach. The only way to solve the underlying issues was to offer Iran a “grand bargain” that would recognize the legitimacy of Iran’s government and its right to a role in the region.
But that was an unthinkable thought. The White House ignored him. Democrats ignored him. The Brookings Institution declined to renew his contract.
Then he started talking about the peace offer. By then it was 2006 and the war wasn’t going well and suddenly people started to respond: You mean Iran isn’t evil? They helped fight the Taliban? They wanted to make peace? He summed it all up in a long paper for a Washington think tank that happened to be scheduled for publication last November, a vulnerable time for the White House, just after the Democrats swept the midterm elections and the Iraq Study Group released its report calling for negotiations with Syria and Iran. When he submitted the paper to the CIA for a routine review, they told him the CIA had no problem with it but someone from the NSC called to complain. “You shouldn’t have cleared this without letting the White House take a look at it,” the official said.
Leverett told them he wasn’t going to let White House operatives judge his criticisms of White House operatives and distilled his argument into an op-ed piece for The New York Times. This time he shared a byline with his wife, who had experienced the peace offer up close. They submitted their first draft to the CIA and the State Department on a Sunday in early December, expecting to hear back the next day.
The next morning, Leverett gave a blistering talk on Bush’s Iran policy to the influential conservatives at the Cato Institute. The speech was carried live on C-SPAN. Later that day, he flew to New York and made the same arguments at a private dinner with the UN ambassadors of Russia and Britain. He was starting to have an impact.
By Tuesday, he still hadn’t heard from the CIA review board.
They called on Wednesday and told him that there was nothing classified in the piece as far as the agency was concerned, but someone in the West Wing wasn’t happy with it and would be redacting large sections.
“You’re the clearing agency,” Leverett said. “You’re the people named in my agreement.”
They said their hands were tied.
After consulting a lawyer, Leverett and Mann and a researcher worked through the night to assemble a list of public sources where the blacked-out material had already been published. They also took out one line that might have been based on a classified document.
But the White House wouldn’t budge. It was a First Amendment showdown.
On Thursday, Leverett and Mann decided to publish the piece with large sections of type blacked out, 168 words in all. Since the piece had been rendered pretty much incomprehensible, they included a list of public sources. “To make sense of our op-ed article, readers will have to look up the citations themselves.”
As they tell their story, Mann rushes off to pick up one of their sons from a play date and Leverett takes over, telling what happened over the following months:
Bush sent a second carrier group to the Persian Gulf.
U.S. troops started to arrest Iranians living in Baghdad, accusing them of working with insurgents.
Bush accused Iran of “providing material support” for attacks on U.S. forces, a formulation that suggested a legal justification for a preemptive attack.
Senator Jim Webb of Virginia pushed through an amendment requiring Bush to get congressional authorization for an attack.
Colin Powell broke his long silence with a pointed warning. “You can’t negotiate when you tell the other side, ‘Give us what a negotiation would produce before the negotiations start.’ ”
Even Henry Kissinger started giving interviews on the need to “exhaust every possibility to come to an understanding with Iran.”
From inside the White House, Leverett was hearing a scary scenario: The Russians were scheduled to ship fuel rods to the Iranian nuclear reactor in Bushehr, which meant the reactor would become operational by this November, at which point it would be impossible to bomb — the fallout alone would turn the city into an urban Chernobyl. The White House was seriously considering a preemptive attack when the Russians cooled things down by saying Iran hadn’t paid its bills, so they would hold back the Bushehr fuel rods for a while.
That put things into a summer lull. But by August, tensions were rising again. U.S. troops in Baghdad arrested an official delegation of Iranian energy experts, leading them out of a hotel in blindfolds and handcuffs. Then Iran said that it had paid its bills and that the Russians were ready to deliver the Bushehr shipment. In Time magazine, former CIA officer and author Robert Baer quoted a highly placed White House official:
“IEDs are a casus belli for this administration. There will be an attack on Iran.”
Mann steps back out on the deck and starts collecting the scattered toys to prepare the house for a dinner party, the typical modern American mother multitasking her way through a busy day. “The reason I have to be so careful now is that I’m legally on notice and they will prosecute things that I say or do,” she says, picking up a plastic truck.
“Because of that one article?”
Outside, it’s getting warmer. There’s a heavy haze and floating bugs and for a moment it feels a bit ominous, a gathering silence, one of those moments when giant pods start to sprout in local basements.
“We’re tired,” Mann says. “Nobody listens.”
It seems inconceivable to her that once again a war could be coming, and once again no one is listening. Another pair of lawn mowers joins the chorus and the spell breaks. A cab pulls in the driveway. The caterer comes to prepare for the dinner guests.