An excellently argued appeal to sanity.
by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
Agence Global, 07 Feb 2013
Fifty years ago, during the Cuban missile crisis, the United States faced what is frequently described as the defining challenge of the Cold War. Today, some argue that America is facing a similarly defining challenge from Iran’s nuclear activities. In this context, it is striking to recall President John Kennedy’s warning, proffered just months before the missile crisis, that “the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Half a century later, Kennedy’s warning applies all too well to America’s discussion — it hardly qualifies as a real debate — about how best to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For more than thirty years, American analysts and policy-makers have put forward a series of myths about the Islamic Republic: that it is irrational, illegitimate and vulnerable. In doing so, pundits and politicians have consistently misled the American public and America’s allies about what policies will actually work to advance US interests in the Middle East.
The most persistent — and dangerous — of these myths is that the Islamic Republic is so despised by its own people that it is in imminent danger of overthrow. From the start, Americans treated the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 as a major surprise. But the only reason it was a surprise was that official Washington refused to see the growing demand by the Iranian people for an indigenously generated political order free from US domination. And ever since then, the Islamic Republic has defied endless predictions of its collapse or defeat.
The Islamic Republic has survived because its basic model — the integration of participatory politics and elections with the principles and institutions of Islamic governance and a commitment to foreign policy independence — is, according to polls, electoral participation rates and a range of other indicators, what a majority of Iranians living inside the country want. They don’t want a political order grounded in Western-style secular liberalism. They want one reflecting their cultural and religious values: as the reformist President Mohammad Khatami put it, “freedom, independence and progress within the context of both religiosity and national identity.”
That’s what the Islamic Republic, with all its flaws, offers Iranians the chance to pursue. Even most Iranians who want the government to evolve significantly — for example, by allowing greater cultural and social pluralism — still want it to be the Islamic Republic. After Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi lost to the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Western elites and Iran “experts” portrayed the Green Movement that morphed out of Mousavi’s campaign as a mass popular uprising poised to sweep away the Islamic Republic. But the Greens, even at their height, never represented anything close to a majority of Iranians, and within a week of the election, their social base was already contracting. The fundamental reason was that, after Mousavi failed to substantiate his charge of electoral fraud, the Greens’ continued protests were no longer about a contested election, but a challenge to the Islamic Republic itself — for which there was only a negligible constituency.
While many Westerners prefer to believe that the Greens did not fade because of their own weaknesses, but because of cruel suppression by an illegitimate regime, this does not hold up to scrutiny. In the fifteen months preceding the shah’s 1979 departure, his troops gunned down thousands of protesters — and the crowds demanding his removal kept growing. In 2009, police brutality unquestionably occurred in the course of the government’s response to post-election disturbances. The government itself acknowledged this — for example, by closing a prison where some detainees were physically abused and murdered, and by indicting twelve of that prison’s personnel (two were later sentenced to death). But fewer than 100 people died in the clashes between demonstrators and security forces after the 2009 election, and still the Greens retreated and their base shrank.
Western human rights groups estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 Iranians were arrested in connection with protests following the 2009 election. More than 90 percent were released without charge. As of 2010, Western human rights organizations did not dispute official Iranian figures that about 250 were convicted of crimes stemming from the unrest, with perhaps 200 other cases still pending. Most were pardoned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; most who were not are free on bail pending appeals. According to a survey by Craig Charney, a former pollster for Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, most Iranians saw their government’s response to the unrest as legitimate.
Notwithstanding the Islamic Republic’s staying power, American policy elites and Iran “experts” with no direct connection to the on-the-ground reality inside the country continue to advance the myth of the Islamic Republic’s illegitimacy and fragility, with the idea that if we just believe in it enough, we will somehow sweep away the challenge Iran poses. Today, this myth comes in two interlocking versions: that sanctions are “working” to promote US objectives vis-à-vis Iran, and that the Arab Awakening has left it isolated in its own neighborhood.
Many commentators now posit that the economic hardships caused by the sanctions will soon prompt Iranians to rise up and force fundamental change in their country — or at least compel their government to make the concessions demanded by Washington. But those making this argument have never explained why the economy is so much worse today than it was in the 1980s, when Iran lost half its GDP during the war with Iraq — and yet even then, its population did not rise up to force fundamental change or concessions to hostile powers.
Indeed, there is no precedent anywhere for a sanctioned population mobilizing to overthrow the government and replace it with one that would adopt the policies preferred by the sanctioning foreign power. Even in Iraq, where crippling sanctions were imposed for more than a decade, killing more than 1 million Iraqis (half of them children), the population did not rise up to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In the end, Saddam was displaced only by a US invasion — and even after that, Iraqis did not set up a pro-American, secular, liberal government ready to subordinate Iraq’s sovereignty and national rights to Washington’s preferences.
Last year, Western pundits hyperventilated about “hyperinflation” in Iran, arguing that a sharp devaluation in the country’s currency would turn the people against the government. This assessment, like so many similar projections before it, proved fanciful. The Iranian rial has been overvalued for more than a decade, underwriting the rising consumption of imported goods by upper-class Iranians that has cost the economy billions of dollars, hurt prospects for farmers and domestic manufacturers, and constrained Iran’s non-oil exports. The recent devaluation of the rial has aligned its nominal value with its real value; as the rial has dropped, Iran’s non-oil exports have expanded significantly. At the same time, the government is disbursing its foreign exchange holdings to defend a lower exchange rate for essential imports like food and medicine.
While no one in Iran is immune from the impact of currency devaluation, the rural poor and those involved in export-oriented sectors are in a relatively advantageous position. There are no discernible food shortages; stores of all sorts are fully stocked, with significant customer traffic. Shortfalls are emerging in some imported medicines. This, however, is not because of currency devaluation. Rather, it is a function of the US-instigated banking sanctions that, contrary to official US rhetoric about their “targeted” nature, make it difficult for Iranians to pay for Western medical and pharmaceutical imports, even though selling such items to Iran is technically allowed under US sanctions regulations. Certainly, anyone who has walked the streets of Tehran recently (as we did in December) can see that Iran’s economy is not collapsing, and anyone who has talked with a range of Iranians inside the country knows that the sanctions will not compel either the Islamic Republic’s implosion or its surrender to US demands on the nuclear issue. There is no constituency — among conservatives, reformists or even what’s left of the Green Movement — prepared to accept such an outcome.
Sanctions advocates continue to claim that it’s different this time, partly because a “demonstration effect” from the Arab Awakening will reinforce the impact of sanctions to break the Islamic Republic’s back. In Tehran, however, policy-makers and analysts see the Arab Awakening as hugely positive for the Islamic Republic’s regional position. They judge – correctly — that any Arab government that becomes more representative of its people’s beliefs, concerns and preferences will be less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States, let alone Israel, and more open to the Islamic Republic’s message of foreign policy independence.
Phi Beta Iota: This is the whole point of intelligence with integrity. Not only does the US government not “do” Global Coverage, it has no idea how to discern and ingest the truth. The truth at any cost lowers all other costs. Not something they understand in the White House regardless of which party is in residence.