In response to:

Ruthless Iran: Can a Deal Be Made? from the June 6, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran [NYR, June 6], Roger Cohen largely agrees with the 75 percent of our book treating Iran’s foreign policy and America’s Iran policy. But he scorns it for the 25 percent on Iranian politics—especially the 10 percent on Iran’s 2009 presidential election.

Cohen typifies Western liberals who backed the Iraq war and blame Bush for botching it. Cohen believes most Iranians seek secular liberalism—with Islamic veneer, perhaps, but mosque–state separation nonetheless. He wants “soft” regime change in Iran, not by force but through Western-encouraged “democratization.”

We, by contrast, left the White House before the Iraq war, disagreeing with policy. We believe most Iranians want an order grounded not in Western-style secularism but in indigenous cultural and religious values. That’s what the Islamic Republic, with all its flaws, offers them the chance to pursue; that’s why most—even those wanting significant reform—continue supporting it.

Cohen’s problem isn’t with us, but with Iranians—for evidence on Iranian opinion backs us. Our book accuses Cohen of “fatuousness” for writing, after months of finding no evidence of fraud in Iran’s 2009 election, “Sometimes you have to smell the truth.” We stand by our line; after Iraq, nobody should get away with that. (We’ve publicly criticized Cohen’s incompetence and hypocrisy before.)

Before the 2009 vote, Cohen asserted—with no polls or other data—that Mir- Hossein Mousavi’s campaign was a political “tsunami” pressing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While Mousavi wasn’t himself transformative, his challenge to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad let Iranians show their desire to move beyond an Islamic Republic with a Supreme Leader—and its harshness toward US and Israeli policies. When Ahmadinejad won, Cohen concluded this had to be fraud. `

Contra Cohen, we’ve never said Ahmadinejad won “fair and square.” We’ve held consistently that “neither Mousavi nor anyone else in Iran nor any Western analyst has ever provided an empirically grounded or even logically sound basis for denying the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s reelection”—and that every relevant, methodologically sound poll predicted a large Ahmadinejad victory.

Cohen charges that we overlook election “irregularities”—e.g., so-called “excess” votes. In fact, we offer pages of fact-based, data-rich analysis showing why these “irregularities”-turned-into-social-fact by Cohen are as mythical as Saddam’s WMDs (which Cohen also believed).

Cohen lies about other aspects of our book—e.g., writing that “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[s].’” Actually, we report that “many of our Iranian interlocutors contend” this, and explain why.

Cohen claims he can oppose war on Iran while condemning its “illegitimate” regime—but inaccurate and uncontextualized criticisms of internal conditions there make the warmongers’ case. When war on Iran proves even more disastrous for America’s position than the Iraq debacle, perhaps he’ll offer more excuses. We prefer being right beforehand—and preventing a strategic and moral catastrophe to lamenting it afterward.

Flynt Leverett
Professor of International Affairs and Law
Penn State University

Hillary Mann Leverett
Senior Professorial Lecturer
School of International Service
American University
McLean, Virginia

Roger Cohen replies:

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett suggest that I agree with 75 percent of their book. I do not. It is a work of intellectual dishonesty. The Leveretts show a cavalier disregard for the Islamic Republic’s intermittent brutality and its consistent betrayal of the modernizing aspirations of the Iranian people. On Iran the Leveretts are apologists without a conscience.

Their arrogance is breathtaking. Having never set foot in Iran, speaking no Persian, they proclaimed on June 15, 2009: “Ahmadinejad won. Get over it.” This verdict came in as millions of brave Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other major cities to demand a fair count of their votes. To the Leveretts the uprising, a precursor of the Arab Spring, was a nonevent unworthy of worldwide media coverage. The view from the ground, with its accompanying odors, does not interest these clinical pontificators. They exude precisely the kind of hubris based on ignorance that has gotten the United States into a lot of trouble over the past decade.

On November 12, 2012, I published a column in The New York Times entitled “The Need for US–Iran Talks.” In it I wrote, inter alia, that President Obama “must get beyond the conventional wisdom on Iran, think big, act bold, ignore the visceral Iran-haters and stop believing coercion alone is the answer.” I suggested that no serious diplomacy could fail to ask the forgotten question: “What do I want to get out of my rival and what do I have to give to get it?” This was enough to earn from the Leveretts the charge of hypocritical incompetence to which they allude. It is treatment by now familiar to their myriad critics. Anyone who does not think everything is hunky-dory in Tehran is a “warmonger.” No wonder their former colleagues and others in Washington, when they have nothing better to talk about, have taken to asking: What on earth happened to the Leveretts?

The authors seem unfamiliar with the meaning of the word “suggest.” When they quote uncritically what their “Iranian interlocutors”—who, one wonders, are these people?—say about greater democratic choice in Iran than in the United States, they underwrite a preposterous notion, much as they do in insinuating that Neda Agha Soltan may have been the victim of some Israeli-backed operation.

I have never argued for regime change—soft or hard—in Iran, although I believe the internal contradictions of the system are severe and its alienation from wide swathes of the population profound. I do, however, believe the Assads’ time is up in Damascus after the mass slaughter perpetrated by father and son over more than four decades. The Leveretts, whose empathy with human suffering is on the shallow side, continue to fawn before Bashar al-Assad. They dismiss his brutality much as they did that of the post-election crackdown in Iran.

“We prefer being right beforehand,” the Leveretts write here with their trademark modesty. In 1998, Hillary Mann Leverett wrote of the liberalizing government of President Mohammad Khatami:

A review of Iranian, Arab and American media reports shows that Iran’s links to international terrorism appear to have continued unabated since he assumed office in August 1997. US government officials from different agencies responsible for the fight against terror confirmed the thrust of these reports—that Iran remains active in support of international terrorism in each of the areas outlined below—though they did not comment on the veracity of the individual media citations.

Was this yet another instance of being right “beforehand”? Perhaps Hillary Mann Leverett would care to explain her radical change of heart.