By Paul Iddon
The central theme and arguments of the Leverett's latest book, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran are in many ways similar to Trita Parsi's 2007 study, Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States. In the latter Mr. Parsi made several of the same arguments that the Leverett's have made since 2001. In essence they are that Iran has proven, roughly, since its revolution that it has been consistently a rational state actor. They argue that it is the United States and its regional hegemonic regional ally Israel that, through a kind of 'rejectionism' to any form of diplomatic relations with the so-called Islamic Republic, are forestalling a rapprochement with Iran and in turn undermining its own interests.
Parsi's history of the relationship between the three key players, hence U.S., Israel and Iran, was essentially written to influence the decision making process in Washington (it is nevertheless worth reading for some of the quotations and evaluations given by the 130 or so Israeli, Iranian and American diplomats and policy-makers that Mr. Parsi interviewed throughout the course of his research). This is essentially the goal of his Washington organization the 'National Iranian American Council'. He quotes the Leverett's in his summary of events post-9/11 quite favourable and paints us a picture of various pro-Israel and neoconservative figures peddling policy in Washington that he strove to demonstrate went against what was in America's interests, namely negotiating and cooperating with the regime in Tehran. The Leverett's weren't very warm to his personal views and contentions after his reaction to the brutal regime suppression, imprisonment, rape, torture and murder of several young Iranians on the streets of Tehran following the suppression of demonstrations which followed the disputed results of the 2009 Presidential elections. His assertion that the United States should support the fostering of a democratic Iran seems to have caused considerable ire from the Leverett's, who on their blog referred to his position as “neoconservatism without guns.”
Since 2009 Iran has been reduced from what could reasonably have been described as a 'hybrid regime' to an 'oppressive regime'. A categorization that is right down there at the bottom of the food chain, far worse than a dictatorship. In fact this regime has reduced Iran to a small family of brutal oppressive states such as Belarus, Syria, Uzbekistan and North Korea. Apparently this development doesn't warrant a mention by Flynt and Hilary who are the loudest voices calling for the United States to go to Tehran and embrace the 'benevolent' heads of the regime there. As a viewer of one of their talks recently very aptly summarized in a comment:
'They're masquerading as maverick truth-tellers but, in reality, they're just playing the role of knee-jerk contrarians . There's nothing novel about it. They're not the first American intellectuals to sell apologia as insight and they won't be the last. You want to push back against the simplistic garbage peddled by some news media, fine. But I'd rather they fought agitprop with truth rather than more agitprop.'Nevertheless Going to Tehran is a very readable study, like Parsi's study it was easy to read as well as interesting due to the many different aspects of the history of Iran since 1979 that are discussed. Also it is important that a critique of American policy towards Iran is made as there are many, many instances of the United States adopting aggressive policy that serve to do little more than hurt the Iranian people. I was glad, for instance, to see the Leverett's, rightly, condemn the Obama administrations decision to officially recognize and support the MEK. Nevertheless it is little more than a manifesto of sorts of what the Leverett's see wrong with U.S policy towards Iran and how they'd like to see it 'evolve'.
The book starts off citing some common falsehood and misconceptions. Falsehoods and fabrications cited include the well-known misquotations of Ahmadinejad's infamous statement regarding the 'Zionist entity' in 2005 and Amir Tahiri's false assertion that the Jews were forcibly being made wear yellow stars on order by the regime. These examples are cited as primary examples of western intellectual discourse vis-a-vie its many flawed perceptions, and absolute falsehoods, and views of Iran. The book generally gives its reader the impression that the Leverett's haven't only been working on it for quite some time, but have written it to influence policy makers who wouldn't be privy to Iran, the regime and its history. Nevertheless the anecdotal nature of their analysis's and the many peculiar omissions, particularly with regard to the historical record, clearly show their narrative is shaped to fit the perception of Iran they have been propagating for years now. This, to a limited degree, can be tolerated since these people are lobbyists, not objective historians or researchers.
As was the case with Parsi in his aforementioned 2007 work the Leverett's cite the Madrid Conference of 1991 as a defining moment in which the United States snubbed Iran, which the Leverett's contend it had no reason to. Omitted from this narrative is the fact that Iran's gesture of goodwill in those days, hence the release of western hostages being held by their proxy Hezbollah, was granted after the United States paid the regime $278 million and issued an official statement which publicly exculpated it from any 'official' involvement in the heinous Lockerbie terrorist attack. Conveniently forgotten by the Leverett's were Rafsanjani calls for Palestinian militants to “kill and execute – and not just inside Palestine – five Americans or Britons or French” for every martyr of their own. Bellicose rhetoric and incitement to mass-murder are two different things that it is crucial we differentiate. The Leverett's however clearly do not see this as a fit distinction to make.
It was in February 1996 that Islamic Jihad did just what Rafsanjani called upon them and their cohorts to do. That was carry out four indiscriminate suicide bomb attacks within the space of four days. This was the first occasion that Israelis experienced suicide bomb attacks levelled against its civil society. Cross-border attacks from Hezbollah in the north increased at this time. Israel's premier of the day Shimon Peres was faced with an election against Benjamin Netanyahu, a hawk who saw little reason to negotiate and work for a peace accord with the Palestinians. Peres in a questionable bid to 'out-hawk' Netanyahu launched Operation Grapes of Wrath a bombing campaign aimed at Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. But he was quickly forced to halt this operation due to civilian deaths. This cost Peres the election in May leading to the rise of Netanyahu. Iran went on to increase its annual aid to Hezbollah to $100 million a year. This regime hasn't made any secret of its support of Islamist fundamentalists that want to make peace negotiations with Israel impossible. As was evident by the manner in which they openly rejoiced following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
From the get-go Israel is proclaimed by the Leverett's to practice 'apartheid-like' policies that the Iranian regime are morally obliged to oppose. That is all you really need to know according to the tone in which they address the Iranian regimes bellicose pronouncements, incitements to terrorism and proxy wars against the Jewish state. But the idea that the Iranian regime opposes Israel out of any principle of humanity or human or civil rights is absurd considering its own relationship with the genocidal regime currently occupying Khartoum (Israel was one of the few country's to take in oppressed South Sudanese citizens during that peoples struggle for independence and fight against tyranny) which has been ruthless in its suppression of Muslim citizens in Darfur and has been ethnically cleansing various minorities within its own borders who don't prescribe to their brand of Islamism.
Similarly the Iran-Iraq War is summarized in a manner that doesn't acknowledge the fact that Iran went on the offensive in June 1982. This point is essential to acknowledge as are the tactics of the regime used. I say this is the case because Khomeini's quixotic and ill-prepared offensive against Iraq saw to hundreds-of-thousands of Iranians, mostly young boys and men, die. General Shirazi for instance stated he opposed Khomeini on logical, logistical and strategic grounds adding he would resign if “unqualified people continued to meddle with the conduct of the war.” He was overruled by Khomeini who extended the war for six years regardless of what people who knew what they were talking about were telling him. Furthermore the impracticality of the regime was aptly demonstrated then by the manner in which it carried out the invasion of Iraq. 95,000 Iranian children for instance were needlessly thrown away, either by being made run into machine-gun fire or across mine fields. They were largely ill-trained and ill-equipped. This demonstrated the scandalous ineptitude and disregard for human life the regime exhibited. The decisiveness that had enabled the Iranians to recapture their territory in 1982 was essentially squandered through those tactics, as was the morale of the troops. The Iraqis on the other hand were fighting on their own home turf against an inept invasion force that was largely infantry based. This emboldened the Iraqi regime and allowed it to subdue the aspirations of the Shi'a who did not revolt in any discernibly substantial numbers to aid the Iranian invaders in their bid to overthrow the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein.
The Leverett's also dedicate significant space to reiterating their stated belief that events in June 2009 served to aptly demonstrate Iran's truly democratic nature. Journalist Reese Erlich wrote in 2009 that the Green Movement was clearly "a genuine Iranian mass movement made up of students, workers, women, and middle class folks" as well as a good deal of the rural population. Eric Hooglund, a scholar who has studied rural Iran in great detail, describes the "overwhelming" support for Mousavi he saw in rural regions which he is very familiar with, discrediting the commonly held perception that Ahmadinejad was particularly popular in rural areas. Erlich rightfully stated at the time that these protests will not damage the regime in the short term, but that it certainly sowed "the seeds for future struggles." The Leverett's on the other hand seem to think that since the regime, with its monopoly of violence subversion and control, survived an outbreak of street campaigns and demonstrations vindicates their stated assertion that the regime is in fact completely legitimate. The couple don't mention the reports of these two observers, not even to debunk their on the ground and learned observations. Nevertheless their analysis on the events of June 2009 in the book are substantially, not that this would be hard, more sober than positions they have taken in the past. Barbara Slavin, a journalist 'turned scholar' as the Leverett's call her in the book called out Flynt's stated contention, in a 2010 forum that speculated over what the Iranian people think, that all the opposition to the regime was focused in 'north Tehran'. She aptly illustrated through the citation of numerous facts how this hollow, and blatantly propagandist, claim falls flat on its face when one takes into account testimonies of people who were actually there.
On that note, Flynt, upon once again rudely and dismissively blurting his 'you must have been in North Tehran' slur regarding the suppression in 2009 in a recent interview with the Huffington Post dismissed state suppression repeating the regime tally that less than a 100 were murdered – another blatant lie. Then emphasizing his mantra that during the midst of the Cold War his man Richard Nixon embraced the killer of at least 3,000,000 people because it was in American interests. That's the couples mantra from which they will never deviate, American interests, economic ones to be precise, trump everything else. Ponder carefully reader, does someone with such attitudes strike you as someone who cares one iota about Iran and its people?
As for citing dubious polls (polls carried out from abroad to an authoritarian state are dubious by definition) one poll is conspicuous due to its absence from the Leverett's account. It deals with what the Iranian public at large and their views with regard to the United States. Abbas Abdi, an editor and columnist in Tehran in September 2002 helped Gallup conduct this poll which had to be commissioned by the foreign-affairs committee of the Majlis. The poll disclosed that some 75% of Iranians were in favour of "dialogue" at the very least with the United States. The chairman of this Majlis committee was a man named Mohsen Mirdamadi. Abdi was imprisoned for publishing the findings whilst Mirdamadi was forced out of politics by the regime and later beaten by Revolutionary Guard thugs when he made a speech in Yazd in December 2003. Again, this doesn't warrant mention.
The couple devote a substantial amount of space to debunking otherwise frivolous liberal perceptions. They take aim over the course of several paragraphs for example at Jon Stewart's satirical news show The Daily Show. However they consistently, almost to the point of frivolity, overlook and ignore the countless numbers of blatant human rights violations attributed to this regime. They even give a semblance of credence to the idea that it was Israel's Mossad intelligence service that, in a covert operation, assassinated Neda Soltani in order to tarnish the 'reputation' of the regime.
On the topic of Neda's murder the couple confer in their book the manner in which they received some hate-mail that stated they both deserved to be shot. As someone who has also been told he deserves to be shot in the head due to my views I can sympathize with this. Nevertheless bringing this up is of questionable value given the fact that we have good reason to believe that Flynt has in the past bragged about his relations with the Revolutionary Guards, who have actually shot Iranian civilians in the head. On this note he met with Mohsen Rezai in Athens in 2003. Rezai is one of the culprits behind the 1992 and 1994 terrorist attacks against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community centre in Argentina. Both attacks killed scores of innocent civilians, most of them Argentinians, and constituted a gross violation of Argentina's sovereignty. Such actions didn't warrant any mention in the Leverett's narrative.
The Leverett's, in a petty attempt to relativize a dictatorial system, cite examples of why many Iranians prefer the theocratic one to a democratic one, citing mainly the influence popular culture has on young people. They quote one Basij paramilitary volunteer as referring to the “shit” music of Britany Spears (the blaring or mere listening of which I'm sure is proven to cause wholly unnecessary nausea and tinnitus). They also discuss how during the Shah's secular reign men were obliged to wear hats modelled after Reza Khan's cap. However they do not have any comment when it comes to the flogging, the stoning, the rape, the beating and the torture of women who refuse to abide by the enforced dress code that exists in Iran under this totalitarian regime today. Fitting.
This brings me to the following moral proposition. Which of the following serves to the moral degradation of Iranian more? The occasional drink or listening of a pop song or the degradation of Iranian women to the point that they sell their bodies for cheap sex to the wealthy mullahs who have plundered the country to enrich themselves? I'm sure any decent adherent of the Shi'a faith will tell you the latter. On a related note, if you think you can stomach it, which I could barely, I'd advise you watch Prostitution Behind the Veil and see how the rich old fetid clerics titter at the statistical reality that on nearly every street corner in Tehran there are young vulnerable women ready to sell their bodies for next to nothing. And if that's not enough to make you hurl in disgust recall the fact that the Iranian economy and people have gotten even poorer since that documentary was made.
Of course many Muslims don't want to be secular liberals (you don't have to be a “secular liberal” in a democratic society) but it is uncanny to read the manner in which the Leverett's seek relativize the nature of the regime. I feel obliged to state for the record that I find most aspects of the Shi'a 'high culture', to which many Iranians prescribe, to be highly admirable. The story of Imam Hussein and the manner in which he essentially died in staunch defense of his dearest beliefs of which a powerful tyrannical nation was pitted against (little wonder the regime wants to enforce who Iranians define as a 'martyr') epitomizes an individuals struggle against tyrannical oppression. A martyr for a cause is always something that I've always admired along with the spiritual aspects that give many Shi'a Muslims the world over peace of body and mind and enables them to live fruitful lives. The manner in which we view, as far as we constitute the west, the Shi'a faith is very important. The Leverett's are certainly correct in their assertion that a negative and misunderstood view of Shi'a Islam has formed in large parts of the west, particularly in the United States. But instead of outlining the admirable practices and traits of the Shi'a their analysis fails to clearly unequivocally differentiate the regime as being a representative of a particular kind of religious governance, one which Khomeini contrived in order to justify religious rule in the intervening time before the prophetic return of the 12th Imam and the heralding into being of a world of justice and vindication, and the religion itself. I make a point of this because elsewhere in the book the couple outline what they see as the importance of differentiating between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
They also make a lot of Cold War analogies but fail to see how their own biases hurt their defense of the regime as being a legitimate representative of Shiites. In Cold War propaganda the Soviet Union portrayed itself as socialist in order to instil in its peoples minds the positive egalitarian aspects to socialism which it claimed to epitomize. The United States also proclaimed the U.S.S.R to be socialist, but its motive was to discredit socialism by its association with an oppressive state system. Similarly by declaring the corrupt and pornographic regime in Tehran today to be a wholesome Islamic one in turn serves to associate the Shi'a faith in most sober upstanding peoples minds with the heinous crimes against humanity of which the regime has carried out. The Leverett's may be able to stomach the ignore the human rights abuses, but most ordinary people find it reprehensible.
It is true that Shi'a Muslims repudiate various aspects of the western popular culture (who doesn't?), but they see their resistance to particular vices and exorbitant lifestyles as part of their commitment and believe their way of thinking will prevail through vindication. A female adherent to Shi'a Islam for example wears her veil to show any onlookers her modesty. In Iran women for the most part have to wear a veil, not to show their modesty, but to avoid undue attention that could lead to them, as I've already stressed, getting beaten, imprisoned, raped or actually killed. An Iranian friend of mine once conferred to me how she believed her religion would prevail in Europe because of the shallow excesses and ways in which Europeans live their lives. She also stressed how those who openly professed their faith in her country are the hypocrites, shallow people who in public loudly proclaim to be moral, instead of proving through their actions and general ethics that they are. This is in essence a microcosm of the difference between the regime and vast swaths of the ordinary faithful Shi'a of Persia.
An extensive and scathing critique of United States policy towards Iran would doubtlessly be very helpful. That's what Going to Tehran advertises itself to be. But in their earnest attempts to exculpate the crimes of the regime, and their actual associations with it, the authors have essentially reduced themselves and their intellectual abilities to the point that they represent little more mouthpieces and petty moral relativists for this regime and its many crimes.
Now onto the namesake of this post, what I contend the Leverett's Nixon-China moment will lead to, a complete Persian Gulf Facade. The Persian 'Islamic' Gulf states are not states of their citizens. Honest authors and scholars have outlined this to be the case numerous times. These states and their regimes profess to rule in the name of Islam, in Iran's case as I mention a very obscurantist form, not their largely Muslim citizens. This has become apparent not only in Persia with its lush 2,500+-years of civilization, emancipation and civil society, but even in the autocratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (which as it happens has a freer society today than Iran does) which has virtually no tradition, or even understanding, of democracy. It was just the other day a Saudi columnist, Khalid Al-Dakhil, wrote the following:
"...The main [implication of the Arab Spring] storm is a change in the political character of this state, which has been constant since its establishment after the First World War. [Its character is] based on a single political principle... namely that the relationship between the state and the people is unidirectional: the leadership versus the people [meaning that the people cannot make demands of the regime]. This [situation] suited the social and political circumstances half a century or more ago, but the Arab Spring storm... undermines this perception... There is no arguing that these relations must change. The question is how this change will come about..."The Leverett's don't propose any change in Iran, they see the United States as the primary root cause of the present situation. Emphasizing security on the gulf, and of those precious hydrocarbons, this mindset is essentially advocating the United States oppose any opposition to these fallible heads of states in the region and invest their capital, diplomacy and trust in what is essentially an oppressive dictatorship, the head of which professes to be the symbolic 'father' and 'guide' of the Iranian people (sound uncannily familiar?). It's bad enough the U.S is virtually silent when it comes to the suppression of the Shi'a of Bahrain. Do we really want it to adapt such a policy with Iran. Again?