Ruthless Iran: Can a Deal Be Made?

Abbas/Magnum Photos
Portraits of Iran’s supreme leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, Tehran, May 2001

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett are unusual among former staffers of the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council in their deep affection for the Islamic Republic of Iran. This attraction, which knows few bounds, finds its apotheosis in Going to Tehran. Their stated goal is “the most objective analysis of Iranian politics.” Yet they find that Iran embraces, “more fully and openly than Turkey, the project of building a state that is simultaneously Islamic and democratic.” (The greater openness of Tehran than Istanbul should, they seem to think, be apparent to any objective analyst.) Iran’s government “of the Shi’a, by the Shi’a, and for the Shi’a,” they suggest, may well produce “a wider range of choice for Iranian voters than the United States’ two-party system offers American voters.”

To say the Leveretts are contrarians would be a gross understatement. The brutal crackdown on millions of protesters who took to the streets after the 2009 presidential election was, they argue, “relatively restrained”—despite the beatings, killings, mass arrests, and institutionalized sodomy that characterized it. I witnessed a good deal of this brutality. (The Leveretts do allow that the government’s response included “criminal acts.”) As for the uprising, it was in their view no more than the self-indulgent acts of pampered younger people from affluent north Tehran homes, a pretext for more “analysis by wishful thinking”—a favorite phrase—of deluded Westerners who inflated the Green Movement’s significance. The authors, who were not in Iran at the time of the post-election upheaval, seem perturbed that the world press covered these momentous events at all: “Notwithstanding their relatively narrow social base, the initial demonstrations received worldwide media coverage.”

This dogged pair of investigators prefers to point out that the Islamic Republic has the “largest stock of industrial robots in West Asia.” Even the much-mocked Iranian auto industry—known to locals for its cars’ failing brakes, galloping pollution, and boxy (and discontinued) Paykan line—earns the authors’ admiration.

The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust and September 11 are not examples of provocative stupidity. Rather they demonstrate adroit challenges to “the foundational premises” and “reigning narratives” of Washington and Israel, at least as seen by “people in the region.”

The Leveretts’ schematic history of the 1979 revolution dismisses its liberal current. It alludes to the execution of “a number” of opponents of the “velayat-e-faqih state”—a state placed by Ayatollah Khomeini under the guardianship of the Islamic jurist, a supreme leader standing in for the Prophet. This vague “number” ran to as many as 20,000 political prisoners slain in the 1980s alone. The killing by Iran-backed Hezbollah operatives of 362 people—mainly US servicemen—in two Beirut bombings is described as a Western failure…

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