What do we know about Iran?

How well do we understand what is going on in Iran?

Not very well, according to a much-discussed article by Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation and Hillary Mann Leverett, formerly of the State Department and the NSC, published just after the Iranian election.

Without any evidence, many U.S. politicians and "Iran experts" have dismissed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection Friday, with 62.6 percent of the vote, as fraud.

They ignore the fact that Ahmadinejad's 62.6 percent of the vote in this year's election is essentially the same as the 61.69 percent he received in the final count of the 2005 presidential election, when he trounced former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The shock of the "Iran experts" over Friday's results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking.

Although Iran's elections are not free by Western standards, the Islamic Republic has a 30-year history of highly contested and competitive elections at the presidential, parliamentary and local levels. Manipulation has always been there, as it is in many other countries.

But upsets occur - as, most notably, with Mohammed Khatami's surprise victory in the 1997 presidential election. Moreover, "blowouts" also occur - as in Khatami's reelection in 2001, Ahmadinejad's first victory in 2005 and, we would argue, this year.

Like much of the Western media, most American "Iran experts" overstated Mir Hossein Mousavi's "surge" over the campaign's final weeks. More important, they were oblivious - as in 2005 - to Ahmadinejad's effectiveness as a populist politician and campaigner. American "Iran experts" missed how Ahmadinejad was perceived by most Iranians as having won the nationally televised debates with his three opponents - especially his debate with Mousavi.

For this the Leveretts were roundly condemned as "apologists" for the Ahmadinejad regime, as "useful idiots", and worse. But these attacks were not joined, and still have not been joined, so far as I can see, to an actual refutation of their points. There are strong statistical signs of manipulation and plausible allegations of rigging, but do we believe that Ahmadinejad would have lost a clean election? That is, do we believe that most Iranians want him out? The evidence is much less clear-cut (see here and here) than our conviction that Ahmadinejad is despicable. But then we knew he was despicable before the election.

Of course, the extent of election fraud and the post-election crackdown are two different questions. The regime's brutal response to the protests is disgusting regardless. But if Ahmadinejad is, in fact, the Iranian people's choice, this complicates the issue of US and western engagement with the regime, assuming it survives. The "flowering of democracy" that many see in Iran looks a little less inspiring if opposition to Ahmadinejad is a minority position, albeit strongly held.

This further article by the Leveretts and an associate restates the argument, and extends it.

Although bloody images continue to be replayed on American television, the protests that broke out in Tehran following Iran's presidential election on June 12 are, predictably, dwindling. They are fading because further demonstrations would no longer be about alleged election irregularities but, rather, would be a challenge to the Islamic Republic itself - something only a small minority of the initial protesters support.

While the protests are subsiding, days of round-the-clock, ill-informed commentary in the United States have helped to "sell" several dangerously misleading myths about Iranian politics. Left unchallenged, these myths will inexorably drive America's Iran policy toward "regime change" - just as unchallenged myths about Saddam Hussein's pursuit of nuclear weapons and ties to Al Qaida paved the way for America's invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some things in this second article offend me more than anything in the first piece. For instance,

[T]he Iranian government responded to the post-June 12 protests in a manner consistent with its own constitutional procedures...

Good Lord. Does that make the shooting of unarmed protesters all right? No doubt one could say that the Soviet Union's response to dissent was lawful in the same way.

Even so, the second piece still raises the key question, one that most commentators are going out of their way to ignore. If the administration reverses its policy of engagement without preconditions-the fresh approach that won it much praise during the election campaign-where does it go next in dealing with Iran and its nuclear ambitions? Tighter sanctions, maybe, if the Europeans can be persuaded to join in. Ah yes. Sounds familiar. The Leveretts go on:

Congress is likely to become even more determined to legislate additional sanctions against Tehran and expand both covert and overt programs aimed at destabilizing the Iranian government. Already, the neoconservative right is clamoring that "regime change" must become the explicit goal of U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic.

Even some foreign policy specialists who describe themselves as "realists" are jumping on this bandwagon. How long will it be before congressional Democrats join Republicans in arguing that the United States should actively encourage the Islamic Republic's downfall?

The call to embrace regime change as the defining objective of U.S. policy toward Iran is sadly reminiscent of the prelude to America's deeply flawed decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime - a long march that commenced in 1998, when President Bill Clinton enshrined regime change as the goal of America's Iraq policy by signing the Iraq Liberation Act, which had passed both houses of Congress with broad bipartisan support.

I think Obama has judged it pretty well so far. He toughened his language this week, but did not shut down the option of engagement altogether. He has not made regime change his goal. Nor should he, in my view. But that choice constrains other aspects of his policy. We may have to deal with Ahmadinejad, whether we like it or not, and we don't want the Iraq method of dealing with a vicious, dangerous tyrant to end up as the only course.

"But even if we aren't really going to do anything, at least he should express stronger support for the protesters," many seem to feel. Hard to disagree, but even there, Obama needs to be careful. The kind of exuberant cheering on of the demonstrations that many neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike seem to want might inspire bigger and more persistent protests, and in turn an even more brutal crackdown than we have seen so far. At the very least this needs pondering. Remember that George H. W. Bush called for an uprising in Iraq. History was on the march back then too, and the US wanted to be on the right side. When the uprising happened, America left the rebels to their fate. The ethics of that kind of posturing look dubious to me.