Our Op Ed, “Another Iranian Revolution? Not Likely”, in The New York Times on January 6 is eliciting very strong reactions from many quarters. Much of the reaction is critical, which is fine and was very much what we anticipated, given the subject. We thought it might be useful to respond to some of the more widely displayed themes in the critical commentary on our piece.
One theme, which was especially prominent in Dan Drezner’s commentary on our Op Ed that was posted on his blog at ForeignPolicy.com , was the notion that we “cherry picked” numbers comparing the crowds participating in the Ashura protests of December 27 and those in the pro-Islamic Republic rallies on December 30. In particular, Dan says that we left out a report of “hundreds of thousands” of anti-government Ashura protestors in The New York Times and a report of only “tens of thousands” participating in the December 30 pro-Islamic Republic rallies published in the Los Angeles Times.
On this issue—first of all, we did not cite the New York Times and Los Angeles Times pieces mentioned by Dan because the crowd numbers they used were not sourced in way. Moreover, the reference to “hundreds of thousands” of Ashura protesters in the New York Times piece—which was reported from Toronto—appeared to us to conflate the large numbers of people who were on the street for Ashura (something that happens every year in Tehran and other Iranian cities) with those who came out under cover of the Ashura crowds to protest. This is, in our view, a critical distinction that needs to be drawn in any analysis of the events of December 27.
For our own analysis, we decided to use crowd figures for both the Ashura protests and the pro-Islamic Republic demonstrations on December 30 that came from sources inside Iran. For the Ashura protests, we drew on a range of figures—the upper limit, drawn from anti-government websites, was “tens of thousands”, not the unsourced “hundreds of thousands” used by the New York Times journalist filing from Toronto. That formulation—“tens of thousands”, and citing opposition websites—was also used in several Western wire service stories. We also had Iranian sources who said that the actual number of Ashura protestors—as opposed to people who were out on the streets for normal Ashura commemorations—was much smaller; those sources that defined the lower end of the spectrum of figures were found from sources inside Iran.
With regard to the crowd figures for the pro-Islamic Republic rallies on December 30, the “tens of thousands” figure used in the Los Angeles Times story referenced by Dan Drezner is not attributed to any source. When we reviewed figures available from sources inside Iran, it was striking to us that a conservative website that is widely read in Iran, well-regarded by many across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum for the quality of its coverage, and had opposed Ahmadinejad’s re-election reported that one million people participated in the pro-Islamic Republic rally in Tehran. (That website is Tabnak which is associated with Mohsen Rezae—who ran against incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in last year’s presidential election.) Our own contacts in Tehran and photographic evidence of the crowd and its distribution over specific parts of the city bolstered our assessment that the figure of one million participants was very plausible. (For those who wish to view photos of the December 27 protests and the December 30 rallies, we posted some on www.TheRaceForIran on January 6; click here .)
Others, including Andrew Sullivan and Scott Lucas, criticized our comparison of the December 27 and December 30 crowds by discounting the larger numbers who turned out to support the Islamic Republic on December 30 on the grounds that some of the participants in the pro-Islamic Republic rallies were reportedly ordered to take part and received free transport, cake, and tea. From a strategic perspective, the most important point here is the comparison between Iran today and in 1978-1979: when protests started against the Shah, there was no level of state coercion or any amount of tea, cake, or free transportation that could bring significant numbers of people into the street to rally for the Pahlavi regime. By contrast, the Islamic Republic retains an obvious and demonstrable capacity to elicit such manifestations of support—and that reinforces our argument that the Islamic Republic is not imploding. In this regard, we would note the following passage from Daniel Larison’s “Eunomia” blog, published by The American Conservative:
As expected, Andrew [Sullivan] didn’t like the Leveretts’ Op Ed, which he calls part of “their campaign to diminish the significance of the Iranian uprising”. They might say that they are interested in correctly assessing the significance of any uprising in order to make their policy recommendations as realistic as possible. After all, if Western policymakers start banking on domestic political unrest to undermine the Iranian government in a major way, they will pursue policies that would be very different than if they assume that the current Iranian government is not changing and not going anywhere…Of course, it might have some bearing on the real power of the Iranian government vis-à-vis the opposition that it can conjure up a crowd of a million “supporters” to the opposition’s tens of thousands. Andrew is right that the opposition protestors face far more risks and dangers, which is why the immediate post-election protests seemed so impressive and why the latest cycle of protests points to the steady weakening of the opposition.
We are indeed interested in correctly assessing the significance of the “uprising” in order to make our policy recommendations as realistic as possible. And, in that regard, we agree with the assessment that the opposition is getting weaker, not stronger, over time. Conversely, we respectfully disagree with Juan Cole and others who argue that the ground is shifting in favor of the Green movement and against the regime. We have learned much from Juan’s scholarship and writing over the years and appreciate his statement of admiration for our work and support for our argument that “the Obama administration should engage the government in Tehran, whatever it is”. But we do not believe that we have “a blind spot toward the most significant movement of popular mobilization in thirty years”. Rather, we are not persuaded that this movement will have a strategically determinative influence on Iranian politics or foreign policy.
We would use an important historical precedent to underscore this point. In 1997, Khatami’s victory in the Islamic Republic’s presidential election surprised virtually everyone—including, by all accounts, the Supreme Leader and other power centers in Tehran—and was widely interpreted in the West as something that the Leader and Iranian conservatives were “forced” to accept. The following year, the assassination in Iran of four dissident intellectuals and the wife of one of the four by what Khatami described as “rogue” intelligence agents prompted considerable public outrage. A year later, the Islamic Republic experienced unprecedented and nationwide student protests. The accumulation of these events led many observers in the West to conclude that the Islamic Republic’s political structure was surely losing its foundations in Iranian society and that momentum was on the side of those who wanted fundamental political change. But this was wrong.
In the first years of the George W. Bush administration’s tenure, we heard then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice say that the United States should not engage with Khatami’s administration—comparing Khatami to Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union’s last days and arguing that engaging Khatami would only “prop up” a collapsing system and prevent the United States and its allies from reaping the benefits of fundamental political change in Iran. Rice’s misreading of the internal situation in Iran at that time and her corresponding policy recommendations are eerily similar to arguments offered today that the United States should not pursue serious engagement with the Islamic Republic because it is imploding. (Again, that is not Juan Cole’s position, and we enjoyed his reference to Henry Kissinger’s observation that “diplomacy is a game played with the pieces that are actually on the board at any one time”.)
We have seen, literally, no evidence that those who protested the results of the June 12, 2009 presidential election—much less those who are now calling for the Islamic Republic’s replacement by a (presumably secular) “Iranian Republic”—represent anything close to a majority of Iranians. On this point, even the dissident journalist Akbar Ganji warns Iranian oppositionists that “it should not be forgotten that most of Iran’s people are still religious…Activists from the Green Movement should be very careful not to say anything that would result in a deeper divide based on religion”.
With regard to the U.S. policy debate, it is certainly true, as one of our correspondents pointed out, that not everyone in the United States who believes America should be supporting the opposition in Iran advocates military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets and defining “regime change” as the ultimate goal of U.S. policy toward Iran. But, just as clearly, neoconservatives and others who have long opposed U.S. engagement with the Islamic Republic and instead advocate military action and support for regime change in Tehran are using what we believe is an increasingly widespread misreading of Iranian political dynamics in the United States to promote their preferred policy agenda. Of course, we have long been opposed to the neoconservative policy agenda on Iran, and have worked for some time to define an alternative course for U.S. policy—strategically grounded engagement with the Islamic Republic, with the aim of resolving U.S.-Iranian differences and realigning U.S.-Iranian relations. On this point, we would also note Daniel Larison’s observation that negotiating with Iran is
the only realistic option there is. The hostage crisis ended 29 years ago, and the barracks bombing in Lebanon was over 26 years ago, and by this time after our war with Vietnam we had already normalized relations and had begun engaging in commerce with them. Considering how much more reason many Americans had to dislike and distrust Vietnam’s communist government, it is extraordinary that it has taken us less time to bury the hatchet with Hanoi than it has with Tehran.
Some say that our policy preferences have unduly skewed our analysis of Iran’s internal dynamics. Others have written to say, in what seem to us non-specific terms, that we do not understand Iranian society or current conditions on the ground in the Islamic Republic. There is certainly much that we do not know about Iran, and we welcome challenges that improve our understanding and knowledge base. However, we would ask that those who want to challenge our analysis of this critically important country do so by putting facts, data, information, and relevant history on the table, as we have tried to do—and not by making vague and unsubstantiated claims about our competence or motives.
We saw, first hand, as career U.S. government officials detailed to the National Security Council in George W. Bush’s White House, how prominent neoconservatives distorted and misused intelligence to support a particular policy agenda—and how many in Congress, the media, and the commentariat failed to ask hard questions about the rush to war in Iraq. We cannot speak for others in the media or commentariat today. For ourselves, however, we can say that we are determined to be as rigorous as possible in our assessment of Iranian developments and arguments about the best course for U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic.
We look forward to continuing the conversation.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett