Thursday, January 07, 2010

Debunking the Leverret's and their dated view of Iran

There may be more than one way to stop Iran, but is there any way to stop the folly on NYT's op-ed page?

OK, there is so much wrong with the Leverett's op-ed piece in the New York Times that I didn't even know where to start. So I went through the article expressing my dismay at its content almost paragraph by paragraph. Forgive my ranting and grammatical errors.

THE Islamic Republic of Iran is not about to implode. Nevertheless, the misguided idea that it may do so is becoming enshrined as conventional wisdom in Washington.

The Islamic Republic is imploding. It’s been imploding for years. The system is cracking apart under the great force of a population that wants simple things: the freedom to kiss in public; the freedom to make fun of their president and their religious figures; the freedom to surf the Internet. These may seem like trivialities, but when you live in a society like Iran’s where all are restricted and where offenders can be harshly punished, they gain importance.

For President Obama, this misconception provides a bit of cover; it helps obscure his failure to follow up on his campaign promises about engaging Iran with any serious, strategically grounded proposals. Meanwhile, those who have never supported diplomatic engagement with Iran are now pushing the idea that the Tehran government might collapse to support their arguments for military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets and adopting “regime change” as the ultimate goal of America’s Iran policy.

I have been for engagement for years. But there is no more room for engagement. We needed a president willing to engage with Iran ten years ago. This regime does not want to be engaged, they want to be isolated. The regime will never negotiate in good faith. They have proven this time and time again. Any negotiation with the US will be a charade at best.

We now know that there really is a huge population willing to be talk with us. While the regime may not fall today or tomorrow, it will fall. And when it does, I hope that my government has chosen to be on the right side of history.

When 3 million people in Tehran dared to take to the streets on June 15th , we entered another phase of history. Any one of us who has spent time in Iran knew what a watershed moment that was. And when I write dared, I mean dared. There is no one in Iran who is naïve enough not to know what kind of personal risks demonstrating creates. Those risks have become even greater since the initial demonstrations. State sanctioned rape, torture, and the threat of execution are very real.

Let’s start with the most recent events. On Dec. 27, large crowds poured into the streets of cities across Iran to commemorate the Shiite holy day of Ashura; this coincided with mourning observances for a revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had died a week earlier. Protesters used the occasion to gather in Tehran and elsewhere, setting off clashes with security forces.

Important events, no doubt. But assertions that the Islamic Republic is now imploding in the fashion of the shah’s regime in 1979 do not hold up to even the most minimal scrutiny. Antigovernment Iranian Web sites claim there were “tens of thousands” of Ashura protesters; others in Iran say there were 2,000 to 4,000. Whichever estimate is more accurate, one thing we do know is that much of Iranian society was upset by the protesters using a sacred day to make a political statement.
The writers show how little they know about Iranians and about the situation. There was an incredible amount of security on the streets of cities all over Iran. Shots were fired into the crowd early in the day. I invite them to play a thought game: how many people would have turned out had there been a minimal security presence. I also invite the authors to remember that there was no call for organized opposition either at the funeral of Montazeri or on Ashura.

Vastly more Iranians took to the streets on Dec. 30, in demonstrations organized by the government to show support for the Islamic Republic (one Web site that opposed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June estimated the crowds at one million people). Photographs and video clips lend considerable plausibility to this estimate — meaning this was possibly the largest crowd in the streets of Tehran since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s funeral in 1989. In its wake, even President Ahmadinejad’s principal challenger in last June’s presidential election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, felt compelled to acknowledge the “unacceptable radicalism” of some Ashura protesters.

Pulease. There is no way a pro-government demonstration can ever be valid when the right to opposition demonstration does not exist. I invite the authors to remember that no one claims that there are no pro-government factions in Iran. Of course there are. There are millions of people dependent on the government for aid and work. The fact is, many of the demonstrators were paid up to 200,000 tumans each. (OK, this is hearsay from a friend who knows people who got paid). It was a day off, for God’s sake. Children and civil servants were bused in as were dependent families.

The focus in the West on the antigovernment demonstrations has blinded many to an inconvenient but inescapable truth: the Iranians who used Ashura to make a political protest do not represent anything close to a majority. Those who talk so confidently about an “opposition” in Iran as the vanguard for a new revolution should be made to answer three tough questions: First, what does this opposition want? Second, who leads it? Third, through what process will this opposition displace the government in Tehran?

In the case of the 1979 revolutionaries, the answers to these questions were clear. They wanted to oust the American-backed regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and to replace it with an Islamic republic. Everyone knew who led the revolution: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who despite living in exile in Paris could mobilize huge crowds in Iran simply by sending cassette tapes into the country. While supporters disagreed about the revolution’s long-term agenda, Khomeini’s ideas were well known from his writings and public statements. After the shah’s departure, Khomeini returned to Iran with a draft constitution for the new political order in hand. As a result, the basic structure of the Islamic Republic was set up remarkably quickly.

Wow. What a simplistic view. I am not an expert on the revolution, but even I know that this is wrong. Many in Iran were fighting for a communist state, others for a socialist state, others for a Marxist state. They decided to unite behind Khomeini and were indeed shocked by his later policies. In fact, there were two years of relative freedom before the Islamic state cracked down and showed its true colors.

Beyond expressing inchoate discontent, what does the current “opposition” want? It is no longer championing Mr. Mousavi’s presidential candidacy; Mr. Mousavi himself has now redefined his agenda as “national reconciliation.” Some protesters seem to want expanded personal freedoms and interaction with the rest of the world, but have no comprehensive agenda. Others — who have received considerable Western press coverage — have taken to calling for the Islamic Republic’s replacement with an (ostensibly secular) “Iranian Republic.” But University of Maryland polling after the election and popular reaction to the Ashura protests suggest that most Iranians are unmoved, if not repelled, by calls for the Islamic Republic’s abolition With Mr. Mousavi increasingly marginalized, who else might lead this supposed revolution? Surely not Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who became a leading figure in the protests after last summer’s election. Yes, he is an accomplished political actor, is considered a “founding father” of the state and heads the Assembly of Experts, a body that can replace the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader. But Mr. Rafsanjani lost his 2005 bid to regain the presidency in a landslide to Mr. Ahmadinejad, and has shown no inclination to spur the masses to bring down the system he helped create.

Iranians do not want to go back to the beginning that is what scares them about revolution. They want reform of their system. Evolution, not revolution. Unfortunately, this regime has shown that it will not allow that.

Nor will Mohammad Khatami, the reformist elected president in 1997, lead the charge; in 1999, at the height of his popularity, he publicly disowned widespread student demonstrations protesting the closing of a newspaper that had supported his administration.

Many of the Westerners who see the opposition displacing the Islamic Republic emphasize the potential for unrest during Shiite mourning rituals, which take place at three-, seven- and 40-day intervals after a person’s death. During the final months of the shah’s rule, his opponents used mourning rituals held for demonstrators killed by security forces to catalyze further protests. But does this mean that a steady stream of mourning rituals for fallen protesters today will set off a similarly escalating spiral of protests, eventually sweeping away Iran’s political order?

That is highly unlikely. First, Ayatollah Montazeri had unique standing in the Islamic Republic’s history; it is not surprising that the coincidence of his seven-day observance with the Ashura observation would have drawn crowds. His 40-day observance — which will fall on Jan. 29 — and the early February commemoration of the 1979 revolution might also encourage public activism. But there is nothing in the Islamic Republic’s history to support projections that future mourning rituals for those killed in the Ashura protests will elicit similar attention.

For example, in late 1998 four prominent intellectuals were assassinated, allegedly by state intelligence officers, prompting considerable public outrage. Yet the mourning rituals for the victims did not prompt large-scale protests. In 1999, nationwide student protests were violently suppressed, with at least five people killed and 1,200 detained. Once again, though, the mourning dates for those who died did not generate significant new demonstrations. Likewise, after the presidential election in June, none of the deaths associated with security force action — even that of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose murder became a cause célèbre of the YouTube age — resulted in further unrest.

Once again, I ask, have the writers been paying attention? It’s 2010, not 1998. The regime knows the mourning ritual protest well and has been cracking down on funerals and public mourning. This opposition cannot use the same playbook that the first Islamic revolution used. They have to be more creative. They are using different actions to show dissent. It’s more clever and subtle than a few mourning demonstrations.

In keeping with this pattern, the seven-day mourning observances for those killed in the Ashura protests generated no significant demonstrations in Iran. Clearly, comparisons of the Ashura protests to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, projecting a cascade of monumental consequences to follow, are fanciful. The Islamic Republic will continue to be Iran’s government. And, even if there were changes in some top leadership positions — such as the replacement of Mr. Ahmadinejad as president by Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Parliament, as some Westerners speculate — this would not fundamentally change Iran’s approach on regional politics, its nuclear program and other matters of concern.

The Obama administration’s half-hearted efforts at diplomacy with Tehran have given engagement a bad name. As a result, support for more coercive options is building across the American political spectrum. The president will do a real disservice to American interests if he waits in vain for Iranian political dynamics to “solve” the problems with his Iran policy.

Then he should not wait in vain, he should show support for the grassroots civil rights movement in Iran.

As a model, the president would do well to look to China. Since President Richard Nixon’s opening there (which took place amid the Cultural Revolution), successive American administrations have been wise enough not to let political conflict — whether among the ruling elite or between the state and the public, as in the Tiananmen Square protests and ethnic separatism in Xinjiang — divert Washington from sustained, strategic engagement with Beijing. President Obama needs to begin displaying similar statesmanship in his approach to Iran.

Iran is not China and never will be China. China is home to one-quarter of the world’s population and owns much of the US debt. Face it, we have no leverage in China. Three million people in Iran took to the streets on June 15th. More than 1% of Iran’s total population demonstrated together, took risks together. This movement is far from dead. Just because the authors do not know the names of its future leaders does not mean that they do not exist.

UPDATED with some links:

Reza Akhlaghiwrites about why this movement does not have obvious leaders:
Traumatized by their exposure to the unmasked face of their rulers and subsequently emboldened by the above grand detachment, Iranians feel reinvigorated and confident of their ability to confront Iran’s weakened theocracy and its multilayered security forces. Organizationally, the struggle in Iran has a completely flat structure with no central figurehead. With a traumatized mind but reinvigorated determination, Iranians appear to be on a path to chart a new role for them in the 21st century. And they appear unyielding in charting this new role based on recognition of and respect for human dignity without dependence on heroic figures.