A Response to the Leveretts
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
09 Jan 2010 17:27
Flynt Leverett directs the New America Foundation's Iran Initiative and is a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. Hillary Mann Leverett heads Strategic Energy and Global Analysis, a political risk consultancy. Together, they publish the Web site "The Race for Iran." Having spent years in the intelligence community, they are both considered Iran experts.
[ comment ] On January 5, 2010, Flynt Leverett and his wife Hillary Mann Leverett wrote a New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Another Iranian Revolution? Not likely."
In this opinion piece, the authors attempt to prove that the opposition Green Movement in Iran is weak, disorganized, leaderless, and even lacks a sense of what it wants. They also claim no clear process exists for the Green Movement to achieve a regime change.
This is not the first time that the Leveretts have bought into the hardliners' propaganda. Immediately following the rigged June 12 presidential election, Flynt Leverett appeared on PBS with Charlie Rose and opined that Ahmadinejad had won fair and square. The couple then asserted the same in an article published by Politico and entitled, "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it."
The basis of the argument was a poll that had been taken weeks before the election. Although the poll itself was indicative of the people's thinking, the Leveretts chose to ignore many facts in order to proclaim Ahmadinejad the winner.
The hallmark of the Leveretts' articles and opinions is their buy-in to the propaganda of Iran's hardliners in order to promote their own agenda for dealing with Iran, which involves ignoring human rights issues and the brutality suffered by Iranians fighting for democracy under the current regime.
The op-ed begins,
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.
First, there are just too many video clips that show tens of thousands of protesters, and quite possibly even larger numbers, participating in the Ashura demonstrations. Second, the 2,000-4,000 figure is only what the government claimed. Third, if the number of the demonstrators was small, why then saturate Tehran and other large cities with thousands of police officers, members of the Basij militia, intelligence units and plainclothes agents? Fourth, given the relentless violence the hardliners have used against demonstrators
over the past nearly seven months, many more people stayed home who would have otherwise participated in the demonstrations.
Fifth, no rational person has claimed that the government is imploding. I, for one, have always argued that the hardliners do have a social base (albeit a narrow one), but significant because they are armed to the teeth. Moreover, unlike the Shah and his supporters, they have no place to flee and so will likely remain a force in Iran. The struggle for change and democracy is akin to a Marathon, not a sprint. No one is under the illusion that in a scant few months people will get their wishes fulfilled. However, it is difficult to deny the impact the demonstrations have had in shaking up the Iranian government, causing division even within the regime. In fact, there has never been so much squabbling in the conservative and hard-line camps. There have never been so many
in their ranks. Many conservative ayatollahs who used to support the hardliners have either fallen silent, or have voiced their opposition.
It is difficult to argue that the government in Iran is in the same strong position as before Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, or even as a few months before the election in June. This government is responding to its own fear. This is a regime that is no longer willing to even allow gatherings for traditional Islamic events, or mourning for the dead because it has very good reason (and intelligence) indicating that they will probably erupt into massive anti-government demonstrations. It has made sweeping arrests encompassing political activists, journalists, and human rights advocates. It has (ineffectively) set up Stalinist show trials for some and kept scores of others incarcerated without charges. This is a regime that secretly buries those killed in the demonstrations or in detention, or snatches their bodies from the hospital; it has taken to executing political prisoners for participating in demonstrations and vocalizing their dissent.
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.
I have no idea which video clips the Leveretts watched. But from all the credible information that I have been able to gather, including video, eyewitnesses accounts from people I trust in Tehran, and back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the number of people who could fit in the area of the demonstrations, it is much more plausible that up to 200,000 people participated in the pro-Ahmadinejad rallies on December 30.
Even in a confidential document leaked out of the Interior Ministry, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, the Interior Minister, had estimated that 350,000 participated in the demonstrations.
Besides, who do the Leveretts think participated in pro-government demonstrations? Most of the demonstrators had been bussed in from towns close to Tehran, or were members of the Basij militia, or government employees who had been coerced into attending (many leaked confidential letters ordering them to attend). In fact, there are strings of buses pictured near demonstration sites. There was also plenty of free food and soda distributed by the government (not teargas).
What objective analyst would construe this forced counter-demonstration as a sign that the hardliners are popular?
So, unlike what the Leveretts claim, the counter-demonstrations were not the largest crowd since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's funeral in June 1989. That distinction belongs to the peaceful demonstrations on June 15, 2008, three days after the rigged election, where at least 1.5 million people, and quite possibly many more, took part. (This is again based on how many people would fit in the demonstration area, which was much larger than the December 30 demonstrations.)
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.
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.
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.
Now, here is a fundamental contradiction in the Leveretts' argument, in addition to them buying into the hardliners' propaganda. The Green Movement is strong enough that it may force the replacement of Ahmadinejad and other top officials, but is nevertheless disorganized, leaderless, weak, and lacking common vision?
A predictor of what Iran wants may be found in the demographics: 70 percent of Iran's estimated 75 million population are under the age of 35. That is 52 million people. The literacy rate in Iran is between 85 and 90 percent, including 3 million university students, 60 percent of whom are female; 24 million of which regularly use the Internet -- 100,000 keep blogs. This represents some of the largest numbers (relative to the population) in the world. Iran has a resilient feminist movement, a robust movement led by university students, and a relatively strong labor movement. This is a nation that is well connected internationally, and that produces some of the brightest students who are practically stolen by the most prestigious universities around the globe, including MIT and Stanford.
A nation with such characteristics knows what it wants, and that is the difference between now and 1979. In 1979 Iranians knew that they did not want the Shah and his regime, but there was no consensus on what they wanted. Some, like the author, wanted a democratic republic. Some like Mehdi Bazargan and his comrades advocated a democratic Islamic republic; others wanted a socialist state, and the hard-core and conservative supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini wanted an Islamic government.
The present movement no longer wants Islam to serve as an excuse for suppression and oppression, nor to interfere in private lives, nor to be used as an excuse for dividing the population into khodi and gheyr-e khodi (one of ours and theirs, or insiders and outsiders). It wants, at a minimum and to begin with, the demands declared by Mousavi in his Statement No. 13, including a free press, free elections, fair trials in the presence of a jury, freedom to assemble and stage peaceful demonstrations. The Green Movement wants the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) to refrain from intervening in the economy, politics and the judiciary, and interfering in elections. It wants an unconditional release of all the political prisoners. It wants to be able to establish private radio and television stations to counter the propaganda by the hardliners (in accordance with article 44 of the Constitution), equality for all citizens, and more. If these goals are realized, the nature of the Islamic Republic will change fundamentally, eventually leading to a democratic republic.
How long must Iran's educated, young, and dynamic population either support, or quietly concede to a government that ranks university students with one, two, or three stars -- depending on their level of political activities -- and prevents them from continuing their studies (based on their numbers of stars); turns the universities into military bases and homes for hooligans; denies them jobs and careers that they deserve if they are gheyr-e khodi; strips them of their basic rights; has no qualms about killing or imprisoning them, and tops it off by forging a negative image of Iran in the international arena? Just to give an example, these Stalinist courts "convicted" Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi and gave him a sentence of 5 years in prison, 6 years in internal exile, and imposed a ban on writing and giving speeches for life, only because he has courageously written the truth of what is happening.
Even from a purely economic viewpoint, how long should such a population accept a 20 percent unemployment rate and a rising inflation rate, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and their cronies loot and pillage Iran's national resources?
Who leads the Green Movement? The symbols are Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and former President Mohammad Khatami. The hardliners recognize them as the leaders of the movement, and most people in Iran and a significant fraction of Iranians in the Diaspora recognize them as such. The Green Movement is pluralistic. It includes radicals as well as conservatives. The trio stands right in the middle, and has done an admirable job of leading, but also to listening to what the people want.
This trio is no longer what they used to be. If they were, they would have retreated a long time ago. Khatami has increasingly adopted tougher positions. Karroubi has shown incredible courage in revealing the crimes committed by the hardliners after the election, and declaring that even the Shah did not commit such crimes -- a taboo in the Islamic Republic -- and Mousavi has not only never retreated one inch from his position, but also has become firmer. He has grown tremendously with the Movement. He declared in his January 1 statement that he is ready to die for the cause, and Karroubi and Khatami have repeatedly declared that they are ready for anything, and will be willing to pay any price for defending people's rights. How much stronger can leaders get?
The process by which the Movement intends to achieve change is through peaceful demonstrations, social pressure and, if necessary, strikes until the hardliners submit to the demands. No dictatorship enters negotiations with the opposition unless under tremendous pressure. At the same time, the hardliners cannot continue killing and jailing people with no end in sight. Continuing these practices will not only further anger the people, but also expand the fissures in the conservative camp, which will ultimately lead to irremediable instability. At the international level, the supporters of the movement will reveal the crimes of the hardliners and the human rights violations perpetrated against the Iranian citizens, and push for condemnation of the regime by the international community.
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.
The Green Movement does not need to use the traditional mourning on the 7th and 40th days after death to demonstrate, nor is what led up to the 1979 Revolution an exact blueprint for change. The opposition in this case has developed its own strategy by using official occasions to demonstrate. The Movement has already used Qods [Jerusalem] Day, November 4 [anniversary of the take over of the U.S. embassy], 16 Azar [December 7, which is university student day], the day [July 17] that Rafsanjani led the Friday prayer (that forced the hardliners not to allow Rafsanjani lead the prayer again), and others. Many more are coming up. Would it not be highly embarrassing to the hardliners if on February 12, the anniversary of the Revolution, large-scale demonstrations ensued with protesters chanting, "Death to the dictator"? Yet the Green Movement has adopted such a calendar strategy.
Also, other resources are available to the opposition that didn't exist in 1979, for example, the Internet. Communication has vastly revolutionized over the past 30 years with social networking sites, blogs and cell phones. And while they cite the use of YouTube in exposing Neda Agha Soltan's tragic death, the Leveretts have a narrow understanding of the impact. If it did not result in further unrest, that may have been because the unrest already existed--the demonstrations continued. But she became a symbol for the movement and the whole world.
Clearly, the opposition is able to take advantage of new technology. To assume that a revolution, hard or soft, must follow the same exact protocol of its predecessor ignores the influences of the times, and the differences of a generation.
Further, the comparison to 1998-99 is inappropriate. That was the beginning of the Khatami era, when people hoped he would deliver on his program of reform. In 1999 the population had not yet experienced the Ahmadinejad years and looting of the nation's resources by the IRGC, while having to deal with joblessness and high inflation, not to mention all the repression. Thus, when the reformists staged a sit-in in the Majles in 2004 to protest their disqualification from running for the 7th Majles, people did not support them. The same people voted for Ahmadinejad in the second round of the 2005 election.
But, the next year, in the elections for city council, Ahmadinejad's own group received only 4 percent of the votes and shouts of "death to the dictator" were already being heard at universities. Hence, the first signs that Ahmadinejad and the hardliners were in trouble.
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.
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.
The speculation that Larijani would find himself president is as inconceivable an outcome as predictions go (especially with his brother as the head of the judiciary). Nevertheless, the premise of the Leveretts' argument shows that they favor the type of diplomatic strategy that ignores human rights issues, as the US has with China. When the Tiananmen Square massacre took place then-President George H.W. Bush, former ambassador to China (named so in 1974 by President Nixon), largely ignored the incident and refused to stand up for student demonstrators willing to sacrifice their lives for democracy, for although he stated that he "deeply deplored the use of force," he did not go so far as to jeopardize China's most-favored trade status.
To use China as a model for diplomatic strategy with Iran is to ignore the differences between these two countries, the state of affairs in Iran and its history with the West, and the inability for hardliners to engage sincerely in diplomacy with the US. Already the carrots offered by the West have been ignored by the current regime. The Leveretts' assumption that a similar strategy would produce the same outcome in US relations with Iran is naïve and ill informed.
A better opportunity for diplomatic engagement would come about through a change in leadership in Iran, with leaders able to serve the interests of their country and people and not simply cater to their own power through oppression and brutality.
The fact is, most Iranians support diplomacy with the Islamic Republic provided that, (i) the gross violations of human rights of the Iranians are put on the table and be given a weight equal to those of all other important issues, and (ii) sincere and determined diplomacy is used, and not merely as window dressing in order to set the stage for economic sanctions and possibly war, which almost all Iranians oppose.
The Leveretts refuse to take into account an understanding of Iran, its history, and social movements. It appears they have spent too much time talking to supporters, propagandists, and representatives of Iran's government in the U.S. in order to farm "facts" that support their own agenda. But they have spent little or no time studying the Green Movement and its demands, roots, appeal, breadth, and depth. They seem content to publish pieces by propagandists for the hardliners in Tehran in order to legitimize a brutal regime, for they fail to provide a diplomatic solution for dealing with an oppressive government in turmoil. Instead, they boast only of the ability to ignore the uprisings of democracy in the name of diplomatic relations as they construct a sturdier version of a straw man, and claim Iran is much more a monolith than the facts attest.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau