How Nasty is Iran?

Back in June, Michael Hirsch wrote some articles from Iran persuasively arguing for diplomatic engagement. He also argued that the extent of domestic repression in Iran has been dramatically overstated. George Packer convincingly responds that Hirsch is substantially understating the degree of repression:

Why did a journalist as experienced as Michael Hirsh not notice? Because, justifiably arguing for dialogue and against fantasies of easy regime change, he wants to be able to say that things are not as bad as you think in Iran. The truth is, things are worse than you think for any Iranian who tries to exercise minimal political rights. Just as the neoconservatives concocted a simple case on Iraq and, now, Iran—claiming that the locals would welcome regime change from outside—people like Hirsh want to make a simple case, too. It’s a great temptation to say that, because X is true, Y, which seems to point in a different direction from X, must be false. We all want total vindication. But in politics there is no total vindication, on Iran or anything else. The regime there is brutal, and we should talk to it.

This seems mostly right, but it's worth examining the idea of "worse than you think" in this regard. It sort of depends on who "you" are. For example, Iran is often characterized in the American press as a "totalitarian" regime, by both conservative and liberal hawks. Leading Democratic Party political operatives like Ken Baer will call you an apologist for the Iranian regime if you dispute this "totalitarian" concept. Thus "you" may well think that Iran is, in fact, a totalitarian society.

Which it isn't. The Iranian regime, though harsh on political dissidents, isn't Stalin's Russia or China during the Cultural Revolution. Crucially, it's not more repressive in any clear way than lots of countries -- China, Saudi Arabia, etc. -- we have perfectly normal diplomatic relations with. One of the reasons Hirsch probably overstated the case somewhat is that so many people -- powerful people -- seem invested in overstating things on the other side.

Photo by Flickr user Farshad Ebrahimi used under a Creative Commons license