National Security

Insiders: Merkley’s Iran Thesis a ‘Political Liability’

Merkley thesis: America has been a force for bad in the world

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) / AP

The emergence of Sen. Jeff Merkley’s (D., Ore.) college thesis advocating for Iran has sparked concerns among political insiders who say that his minority views could complicate the lawmaker’s chances for reelection in 2014.

In his 1979 college thesis, Merkley argued that the U.S. power is in a sharp decline and that it should coddle the Iranians as a result.

Merkley’s soft line on Iran and belief in American decline prompted foreign policy experts to warn that the thesis provides a troubling window into the lawmaker’s current thinking about Iran.

Merkley emerged earlier this year as one of the leading Senate Democrats opposing new economic sanctions on Iran. His outspoken opposition helped kill the bill and delay new sanctions indefinitely.

Foreign policy insiders who reviewed the thesis said that Merkley’s views were radical even for the time and that his current effort to kill sanctions could be a sign that he maintains these beliefs.

"If I were an Oregon voter, what I would worry about is that his anti-Americanism with regard to a radical religious regime in Iran may still, at least in part, be there," said Michael Ledeen, a freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). "Has he changed his mind?"

Merkley’s belief that America is on the downswing and should tread carefully with the Iranians is a minority view, according to Ledeen.

"Most of Congress would not agree with this, I think," Ledeen said. "Most of Congress, like most Americans, are not fooled by Iran and easily gulled by those who say, ‘Hey lets be nice to Iran.’"

"The American public is not inclined to be nice to Iran and I don’t think the Senate is inclined to be nice to Iran," Ledeen said. "If Merkley still thinks what he thought in 1979 he’s a bit of an outlier."

Merkley’s 235-page thesis, written when he was a student at Stanford University, claims that America has adopted an immoral foreign policy and is not a force for good in the world.

"Many who believed that America would be the force for freedom that it claims to be, have been bitterly disillusioned," he writes. "Despite comments and criticisms from many parts of the world, Americans have been slow to recognize the possibility of a fundamental contradiction between American traditional political values and the support of tyrannical governments."

"American citizens wonder how criticisms of American policies can be taken seriously when the United States has brought many improvements to numerous countries, including countries where civil liberties are suppressed," Merkley wrote.

While "these arguments … can be convincing as generalities … in detailed analysis, however, they are less persuasive," he wrote.

Former Pentagon adviser Michael Rubin told the Washington Free Beacon on Monday that Merkley’s thesis "shows his knee-jerk reaction is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

"Unfortunately, it seems, Merkley as senator remains wedded to Carterism, even as he should realize its cost, and its alternative," Rubin said.

Merkley goes on to fault the United States for introducing Western values into Iran that are "very different from Iranian customs and that at times contradicted Islamic teachings."

"A fair number of Iranian officers and advanced technical personnel received training in the United States," Merkley wrote. "Although the cultural impact of this training upon the participants cannot be precisely determined, at a minimum, the experience probably increased their understanding of and ability to identify with Western culture, and in so doing, may have altered the participants attitude toward aspects of Iranian culture or Islamic values."

One foreign policy insider who works on the Iran issue said that Merkley’s thesis leaves him an outlier among lawmakers and the American public.

"Sen. Merkley's stance on Iran is on the wrong side of American public opinion and on the wrong side of both chambers of Congress," the source said. "What he wrote in his thesis was quite literally on the wrong side of history."

"All of that adds up to a huge political liability," added the source, "but he's stuck to his positions again and again. He really seems to believe all of the things he wrote. Now the voters of Oregon will get to decide whether they want to be represented by a man who thinks that America has been a force for evil in the world."