GUY RAZ, host:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been one of the loudest supporters of the uprisings across the Arab world. It's no secret he regards certain Arab leaders as rival, and proxies of the United States. And Flynt Leverett and his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett, both former National Security Council staffers, argue that Iran has much to gain from the changes taking place in the Middle East.
Ms. HILLARY MANN LEVERETT (Professor, Yale University, American University): Their influence has really been on the rise, particularly since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which - you know, one of the most important things they did was essentially liberate the Shia in Iraq.
Iran was able to really use what we call its soft power; its ability to exert influence throughout the region. It was able to use, in particular, the liberation of the Shia to take its policy that it's had really since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and almost put it on steroids to use the influence it could use in Iraq, to use it more broadly throughout the Middle East.
They are really in a position to take advantage of, to be open to people who are newly becoming empowered in their states, to hear their grievances, and to tap into their grievances.
RAZ: And of course, there was no great love between the Iranian government and some of these Arab leaders - like Mubarak, like Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, and Gadhafi in Libya.
Mr. FLYNT LEVERETT (Professor, Penn State University and Fellow, New America Foundation): I think that's right. The Islamic Republic is very, very confident in the proposition that any government in the Arab world which becomes at all more representative of its people's values, beliefs, concerns, preferences, interests; any government in the Arab world that becomes more representative of its own people will, first of all by definition, become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States and Israel. And that's a plus for Iran.
Any government like that will also become, in some ways, more receptive to the Iranian message of resistance to U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the region. That's a message that doesn't just go to Shia. It goes throughout the region, and has enormous appeal on the Sunni Arab street.
RAZ: Ahmadinejad is encouraging these protests all over the Middle East - and these uprisings. And of course, he faced a pretty significant turmoil in 2009, on the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran. I mean, wouldn't Iranians find that somewhat rich coming from a man who essentially, crushed an uprising in his own country?
Mr. LEVERETT: Well, I think that some Iranians might find that - as you say - rich. But I think that the reality is that the green movement, as it emerged, did not represent a majority of the Iranian population, and that a majority of Iranians actually living in Iran still like the idea of an Islamic republic.
Even if some of them want that Islamic republic to evolve in some ways, or be different in some ways than it is today, the majority of the Iranians still buy into the idea of an Islamic republic.
Ms. LEVERETT: And there's a really important distinction that I think is routinely missed in Washington - that the Islamic republic, the system in the Islamic republic, it belongs to the people of the Islamic republic of Iran. Warts and all, flaws and all, it's their system. It's an independent system. Its foreign policy, its policy decisions are independent.
So with all of the criticisms that you have within the Islamic republic and for all the - many of the people inside Iran want the system to evolve in different ways, they want it to be their system, and they want it to continue to be the Islamic republic. That is completely different, completely the opposite of nearly every other state in the region.
RAZ: What if what emerges in the Middle East, throughout the Middle East is a collection of essentially, non-aligned states - you know, governments with no interest in serving as proxies or pawns, you know, in a strategic struggle between the U.S. and Iran?
Mr. LEVERETT: If that happens - and I think we are very much headed in that direction already - the United States is going to have to get serious about a skill that it has really allowed to atrophy for several decades.
RAZ: Which is?
Mr. LEVERETT: Which I would call classical diplomacy: the ability to align with multiple states, you know; find areas of common interest; play those to build relationships; and manage the areas where there are going to be very, very strong disagreements.
This is not the way the United States is used to dealing with the Middle East. We really function as a kind of hegemonic power in this region. That is just not going to be tenable anymore. And the United States is going to have to have a much more creative, adaptive, strategically grounded foreign policy in this part of the world than it's had for a long time.
RAZ: That's Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett. He teaches at Penn State, and is a fellow at the New America Foundation. She teaches at Yale and American University. Thank you both.
Mr. LEVERETT: Thank you.
Ms. LEVERETT: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.