The Iran Debate We Should Be Having

by Patrick Appel

Larison makes several points in response to my criticism of the Leveretts:

Should skeptics of the Green movement be more careful to qualify our claims? Perhaps. It is true that it is difficult to know what is happening inside Iran, but given these limitations shouldn’t it count in favor of the skeptics that we seem to have understood the balance of political forces in Iran much better than Green movement sympathizers and most Iran hawks? If skeptics have seemed a little too sure about things, how ridiculously overconfident have many other observers been? Have the latter been right about much of anything so far? On balance, whose arguments seem to be more in accord with reality? Shouldn’t that be the relevant measure in gauging the merits of what the Leveretts have had to say?

The Iranian state has not fallen, but the Leveretts have not been proven right. Worse yet, by making extreme statements they have damaged their side of the debate. Take this sentence from their June 24, 2009 op-ed:

[T]to this day, there is no hard evidence of electoral fraud which even some Mousavi campaign aides privately acknowledge.

There sure was a lot of evidence that suggested fraud. There might not be "hard evidence" but there is "hard evidence" of very little in Iran given that the government is running interference. The Leveretts don't explain how Ahmadi won in areas that were political or ethnic strongholds of other politicians. Another line from the same article:

[T]he Iranian government responded to the post-June 12 protests in a manner consistent with its own constitutional procedures and with far less bloodshed than when the Chinese government suppressed the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.

As Andrew wrote at the time: "It's disgusting to diminish the violence on the ground, which we have only seen pieces of, by calling it constitutional and less awful than Tiananmen." The Leveretts write that they "certainly do not take glee in anyone’s death, injury, or incarceration." But re-reading their various op-eds it's difficult to find a single criticism of the Iranian government. The arrests, show trials, executions, torture, and rape of Iranian protesters hardly make an appearance. In this June 15, 2009 op-ed the Leveretts state –with absolute certainty– that Ahamdi won the election. The entire article has a 'move along, nothing to see here' quality.

Maybe the Leveretts are right and Ahmadi won the popular vote (I don't believe that but don't rule it out). Politicians are known to rig the vote, in order to intimidate political opponents, even when they are likely to win outright. Let's pretend that the Leveretts are right and Ahmadi won. That does not make the protests in Iran irrelevant. Hooman Majd said it well awhile back:

What is evident is that if we consider Iran's pro-democracy "green movement" not as a revolution but as a civil rights movement -- as the leaders of the movement do -- then a "win" must be measured over time. The movement's aim is not for a sudden and complete overthrow of Iran's political system. That may disappoint both extremes of the American and Iranian political spectrums, left and right, and especially U.S. neoconservatives hoping for regime change.

Seen in this light, it's evident that the green movement has already "won" in many respects, if a win means that many Iranians are no longer resigned to the undemocratic aspects of a political system that has in the last three decades regressed, rather than progressed, in affording its citizens the rights promised to them under Iran's own Constitution.

Mousavi's latest interview is in keeping with this understanding of the green movement.

I take no pleasure in character assassination, but the Leveretts have brought much of this upon themselves. Larison thinks that the Leveretts are being attacked "because of the policy course they recommend, which is significant, sustained engagement with Iran." And that what "Leveretts’ critics seem to want to do is identify this engagement approach with sympathy and collusion with the regime." That may be true of some Leverett bashers, but this is too simple. Dan Drezner has been one of the Leveretts' most constant critics. He's not exactly a hawk.

The Leveretts' substantive point, that we should engage with the Iranian government we have, is a serious position that deserves real debate. Arguing, without sufficient evidence, that Amadi won the election outright was not necessary to advance this position but doing so made made their position easier to defend, as did downplaying the protests and ignoring the violence. Pundits who advocate bombing Iran should address all the likely consequences of that action. Pundits who advocate engagement with Iran should recognize the crimes that the Iranian government has committed against its people.

Just because a fact is not convenient to the argument at hand does not mean you can disregard said fact. Ignoring the strongest evidence against a position opens one to charges of intellectual dishonesty and does not move the debate forward. It's intellectually lazy and it damages the discourse.