A new book by two former US officials defending the Islamic Republic of Iran is “an act of ventriloquism,” says a leading analyst.
Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, previously seconded to the National Security Council, “not only echo the voice of the ideologues of the status quo,” writes Abbas Milani, “but also attack anyone inside or outside Iran who has ever dared to challenge the orthodoxies of the regime.”
While claiming to debunk what they call the three prevalent myths about the regime—“irrationality,” “illegitimacy,” and “isolation” – they also “attempt to debunk the ‘myth’ that there is a legitimate democratic opposition left in Iran,” he writes in the New Republic:
The Leveretts quote one “defender of the system” who claims that “the overwhelming majority of Iranians” prefer the current system to “secular liberal democracy.” In fact, a critical part of their argument for the legitimacy of the Iranian regime is founded on the axiom that the revolution of 1979 was “inspired and directed” by Ayatollah Khomeini and his theory of Velayat-e Fagih, or the rule of the cleric as the only legitimate power on earth until the return of the messiah. Khomeini, the Leveretts declare, did not “‘capture’ the Iranian revolution,” because “there would have been no revolution without him.”
The fallacies—the errors of omission and commission—in those few lines are many. The tumult that eventually led to the revolution in 1979 was first inspired not by Khomeini but by Jimmy Carter and his human rights policy; it was exacerbated by the last-minute attempt of the dying Shah to change his authoritarian regime into a more democratic polity, and by an opposition that mistook Khomeini for a new Kerensky. It was only after the movement for democratic and human rights began, as writers gathered in the Goethe Institute in Tehran and protested government censorship in front of thousands, that Khomeini fully realized the democratic nature of the movement. The Iranian revolution was conducted in the name of freedom, dignity, and independence, and not for a government where one man claims to represent the voice of God. Only regime apologists dispute this fact.
“Khomeini was nothing if not astute,” writes Milani, head of Stanford University’s Iran Democracy Project:
In the months leading up to the revolution, as he was emerging as a de facto leader of a movement without a leader, he never once mentioned his intention to create God’s government on earth. Instead he promised something very close to liberal democracy. Indeed, the first draft of the constitution developed for post-revolutionary Iran and approved by Khomeini was modeled on the secular democratic Fifth Republic of France. Khomeini more than once declared that no clergy would assume any position of power. He promised there would be no coercive methods used to force women to wear Islamic veils. He lied. His charismatic and unbending leadership was certainly a significant element of the revolution’s victory, but he neither “inspired” the revolution by himself nor was honest with his people about what his intentions really were.
The Leveretts claim that secular liberal democracy is at odds with the religiosity of the Iranian people.
But, argues Milani, “the larger truth is that even a cursory look at Iran’s modern history—from Amir Kabir and the rise of social and religious movements in the mid-1850s to the constitutional revolution of 1905-1907, and Iran’s democratic interlude from 1941 to 1953, and finally the tumult before and since the revolution in 1979—shows that secular liberal democracy has never been far from the center of political discourse in Iran.”
Indeed, Iran has stronger prospects to transition to a liberal democracy than most Arab states and even some Asian and European countries, according to recent research (right).
Iran shows an “abnormal gap” between the societal potential for liberal democracy and the actual level of political liberty, the research concludes, with robust support for liberal norms co-existing alongside conservative values. In comparison to 64 other countries, Iran’s potential to develop liberal democracy was found to be higher than Arab countries, such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, such Asian states as South Korea, India and Thailand, and certain European countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Romania.
“While Iran is no North Korea, there is overwhelming evidence the situation is closer to the one portrayed in Argo, rather than the modern and civil society Iran’s theocratic leaders claim to allow,” Ilana Glazer writes for The Daily Beast.
A marked rise in the frequency and gravity of rights abuses by the regime was highlighted in two recent reports from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special investigator on human rights in Iran. The reports outline Iran’s stepped up executions of prisoners, including juveniles, and arrests of political dissidents who are sometimes tortured to death in jail.
The Islamic Republic has failed to investigate “widespread, systemic and systematic violations of human rights”, Shaheed’s report said. Hundreds of political prisoners have been detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression during protests following the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
The regime’s efforts to eliminate dissenters from its ideological orthodoxy stretch well beyond its own territory, says Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
“Terrorizing Iranian expatriates has become a feature of Iran’s policy under President Ahmadinejad,” she wrote recently.
Such abuses do not find their way into the Leveretts’ account.
The problem is that virtually all their knowledge about Iran comes from what they call their Iranian ‘interlocutors,’ or high-ranking Iranian officials, or their friend and occasional co-author Seyed Mohammad Marandi, whom they introduce as ‘a scholar well connected with Iranian foreign policy circles,’” writes Milani.
“In truth, Marandi is not just himself a polished ideologue of the regime, but through his father—a physician to Khamenei—he is connected to the very center of power.”
The Leveretts also make the familiar, flawed conflation of democratic reform and externally-promoted revolution, criticizing Milani for advocating “soft regime change.”
“They correctly say that I have been in favor of direct, unconditional negotiations between Iran and the United States—talks that would involve not only the nuclear issue but also the issues of human rights and democracy—a Helsinki approach, with talk about missiles and bombs in the morning and talk about human rights in the afternoon,” the author, most recently, of The Shah:
What they critically fail to mention is that I have also repeatedly emphasized that bringing democracy to Iran is the responsibility of the Iranian people, that only they can and should decide the future of their country. This is not “soft regime change.” It is a hard defense of the rights of the Iranian people to choose their own government, and a rejection of all self-declared “guardians” of the Iranian people, whether they reside in Maryland or in Tehran.