Leverett in 2005. (Reuters/Chris Wattie)

First in a two-part series on the dueling Iran lobbies in Washington.

Flynt Leverett is fielding questions from an audience at the New American Foundation for a panel titled “What the Iranian People Really Think,” and the crowd—at least the Iranian part of it—is starting to get hostile. When Leverett cites poll numbers suggesting that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad most likely won Iran’s heavily contested June presidential election, the Iranians sitting near me in the glass-box conference room direct a chorus of groans and sarcastic laughter toward the podium, where the 51-year-old think-tank celebrity sits with his hands folded in front of him.

During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, the voices of the Iranian questioners tremble with anger. What do you know, they ask, about Iran or its people and how the Islamic Republic treats them? Leverett handles the questions with a confidence born of being one of the most influential Iran experts in Washington—a position that he has earned despite having neither an academic background in the field nor the ability to speak Farsi.

Leverett’s wife and colleague, Hillary Mann Leverett, a neatly dressed, seven-months-pregnant brunette who sits in the front row and watches her husband, is a bona fide Iran expert who served on the Iran desk of George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff, where her husband worked on broader Middle East issues. But Flynt Leverett subscribes to the realist school of foreign policy, which holds that knowing the internal mechanisms of a regime and the particular characteristics of a language and culture are largely irrelevant to understanding its geopolitical actions. Despite their fondest hopes, the Iranian opposition members in the audience aren’t going to return to a newly democratic Iran any time soon because, as Leverett has explained in a string of recent articles including a New York Times op-ed, the current Iranian regime isn’t going anywhere—so we better deal with it.

In Leverett’s opinion, the White House has made a hash of engagement with Iran, and the mullahs appear to respond better to his overtures than they do to requests from the Obama administration: unlike the president, the Secretary of State, or any other American diplomats or officials, Leverett has actually scored a precious invitation to Tehran. “We do not have a visa,” Leverett explained to me in an email. “Which as I am sure you have heard is a cumbersome process.” Still, it’s quite a coup. Access equals influence in Washington, and the fact that Leverett gets to go to Tehran, an itinerary envied by policymakers and access-peddlers, underlines his status as one of the most important Iran experts in town.

The curious dance between Washington’s Iran experts and the foreign government whose actions they are supposedly analyzing has parallels in the ways that totalitarian governments like the Soviet Union and Mao’s China manipulated Western public opinion by only granting access to scholars and policy hands who would toe the party line. Similarly, the Iranian government today decides who in the West will be granted the kind of access that will allow them to speak with authority about the regime to Washington. Western scholars and policy wonks alike understand that access to the regime is a form of currency that can make you powerful, or rich, or both. Washington’s ambitious and talented, its romantic opportunists looking to attach themselves to a beautiful cause, and those eyeing fat commissions for opening Iran’s energy resources to U.S. companies, all see access to the Iranian regime as the biggest prize in the foreign policy game.

Yet unlike Maoist China or Soviet Russia, both closed societies, Iran is a divided country where crowds have protested in the streets for over half a year. The regime there is split into two dueling camps. In addition to representatives of the democratic opposition, Washington hosts a team of experts who advocate the party line of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—let’s call them the “reformers”—who are critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, but, unlike the democratic opposition, have no wish to bring down the system. But a second team of experts supports Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, and no one makes their case better than Leverett. “Flynt has a good understanding of how that government works,” says his New America colleague Steven Clemons. “He sees Khamenei as the guy that matters. What he believes is that Khamenei is a shrewd calculating operator who moves Iran’s strategic interest.” Leverett’s colleagues were surprised by the invitation. “I was pleased as punch that New America has been designated twice by the regime as an institution off-limits,” Clemons told me, adding that he respects the Leveretts’ right to hold differing policy positions.

The opposition camp has been critical of Leverett for his collaborations with Mohamed Marandi, director of Tehran University’s Institute for North American Studies and the son of Khamenei’s personal physician, who appears to have facilitated Leverett’s upcoming visit. “The University of Tehran is the institution which has applied for our visas,” Leverett explained to me.

Leverett was offended when I asked if the Revolutionary Guard had played a role in his invitation, and yet there’s little doubt that his co-author is personally and professionally close to the regime—and publicly justifies some of its most brutal actions. Since the June elections, Marandi has been the Ahmadinejad government’s key spokesperson in the English-language media, and he recently defended the regime’s sentencing opposition members to death. His true occupation may be even more unsavory. “He passes himself off as an academic, but he’s with the Ministry of Intelligence,” says Ramin Ahmadi, co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentary Center and a professor of medicine at Yale.

Of course, if you need to make the case that you have a genuine channel to the regime’s inner sanctum, it’s hard to do better than to partner with a hard-core regime man like Marandi. In the realist view, Leverett’s strong stomach and lack of sentimental attachments is proof that he is coming from the right place. “Flynt comes from a very strong national-interest point of view and emphasizes energy security,” says David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and a frequent guest at dinner seminars at the Leveretts’ Northern Virginia home. “They’re background dinners, usually about eight to 10 people, weapons experts, energy experts, Iranian nationals, with varied points of view on the Middle East,” he says. While Frum explains that Leverett’s “domestic politics are on the conservative, not liberal, side,” it is also true that Leverett’s fame and acceptance in Washington policymaking circles rests on the fact that he was lionized by liberals for his opposition to the Bush administration’s Iran policy.

The story of Leverett’s rise and fall and rise embodies the upside-down weirdness of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when obscure Middle East experts and Washington bureaucrats occupied center stage of the national debate. It’s safe to say that in less turbulent times, and under a less controversial president, no one would have ever heard of Flynt Leverett. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Leverett earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University, earned a doctorate in politics from Princeton, honed his Arabic-language skills in Damascus, and joined the CIA during a period when the agency was not especially known for running agents, or paying much attention to Iran.

In 2001, after a decade at the agency, Leverett landed a plum position on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, then headed by Richard Haass, and was subsequently named senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff. In the interagency process that coordinates policymakers in the bureaucracies across Washington—defense, state, White House, CIA—Leverett earned a reputation for committing what are known as “process fouls.” “That’s when you intentionally exclude other policymakers,” says a former senior-level Defense Department official. “Leverett did that to us all the time, withholding a paper and cutting us out of the debate because he feared, rightly, we were going to disagree with him.”

But it was Leverett’s disagreements with the president that, in his account, compelled him, as he wrote in 2005, “to leave the administration.” However, as another former member of the Bush NSC staff explained, Leverett did not leave his post by choice. “The job of a director on the NSC staff is bureaucratic,” says the former Bush official. “If there’s a deputies’ meeting, you take notes. When you get a letter from a foreign government, you log it in and draft a response.” Leverett continually missed deadlines and misplaced documents, and the NSC Records office had a long list of his delinquencies. His office was notoriously messy—documents were strewn over chairs, windowsills, the floor, and piled high on his desk. For Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser and a famously well-organized “clean desk” type, repeatedly missing deadlines and losing important letters was simply not tolerable behavior for an NSC officer, and Leverett was told to leave.

Returning to the CIA briefly before retiring from government service in the spring of 2003, Leverett moved on to the Brookings Institution, and then the New America Foundation, as he began to reinvent himself as an Iran expert with the help of his wife. Hillary Mann Leverett claimed that after rotating back to the State Department from the White House in April 2003 she had received a fax from a Swiss diplomat acting as an intermediary on behalf of the Iranians, offering what the Leveretts would come to call the Grand Bargain. According to the Swiss fax, she said, the Islamic Republic would cease support for terrorist organizations, terminate its nuclear weapons program, and recognize Israel if the United States would in turn guarantee that it had no designs to topple the regime.

So why didn’t the Americans bite? As the Leveretts explained in a series of interviews and their own articles, including, most famously, a 2006 op-ed in the New York Times published with redactions ordered by the Bush White House, it was because of Bush and the neoconservatives, who intended to lead the United States to war again.

As the missed Grand Bargain became another proof of Bush’s incompetence, Leverett and his wife found themselves the center of a great deal of positive attention among reporters, talk-show hosts, and Democratic politicos. The couple was profiled in Esquire, and Flynt enjoyed a guest spot with Jon Stewart. The problem is that it wasn’t the neocons who dismissed the plausibility of the offer; rather it was Flynt Leverett’s putative allies, including then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage. Other staffers don’t remember it at all. As a former colleague on the NSC staff recalls, “this historical document arrives and Condi Rice and Stephen Hadley don’t remember it, and only Flynt does. It was either a concoction of the Swiss ambassador, or of the Swiss ambassador and the Leveretts together.”

Even as the legend of the Grand Bargain has been discredited, the tale—a narrative describing a sensible, realistic Iran eagerly courting a stubborn Washington, with the Leveretts in the middle of things—served its purpose. It not only identified the couple as critics of the Bush administration, it also certified them as experts about the Iranian regime—and as instruments through which the regime might influence Washington.

CORRECTION, Feb. 11: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this article quoted Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation as saying he was pleased that the think tank had been removed from the list of U.S. organizations shunned by the Iranian government. In fact, Clemons said he was pleased that New America is shunned by the Iranian government. The article has been corrected.