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Reports of the Green Movement's Demise Have Been Greatly Understated

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Omid Memarian published a long piece last week on the Huffington Post, "The Leveretts and the Accountability of the American Analysts on Iran". Ostensibly, Memarian writes to critique one of our recent posts, "Iraq Redux: 'Conventional Wisdom' and Accountability for Iran Analysts," in which we criticized a news story in The Washington Post for relying too heavily on the analysis of Green Movement partisans like Karim Sadjadpour and presenting that as "objective" analysis of Iranian politics--even though such analysts have been wrong on virtually every call they have made about Iranian politics since the June 2009 presidential election.

Memarian spends a good part of his post characterizing us as "America's most prominent, and abrasive, defenders of the Iranian regime and its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad" -- he even includes us on a "list of foreigners who unconditionally support the Islamic Republic of Iran," along with Sudanese President Bashir, Hizballah's Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas's Khalid Mishal, and Hugo Chavez -- and arguing that our writings are indistinguishable from those of Ahmadinejad's chief speechwriter or Hussein Shariatmadari, editor of Kayhan. To the extent that Memarian engages on substance, his arguments are weak and riddled with both factual errors and a self-serving rewriting of recent history. But, since these are precisely the traits over which Iran analysts should be held professionally accountable, we are compelled to respond to at least some of his arguments.

For example, Memarian seeks to rebut our analysis of the Green Movement's decline by arguing simultaneously that the Ashura protests on December 27, 2009 showed the Green Movement's strength and that the February 11th anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founding "was never meant to be the peak of the people's protests." Both claims are patently false.

As we wrote in The New York Times in January 2010, large crowds of people gather on the streets of Tehran every year for Ashura. On December 27, 2009, a relatively small number of protestors -- at most, "tens of thousands," perhaps as few as 2,000-4,000 -- "used the occasion to gather in Tehran and elsewhere, setting off clashes with security forces". Green Movement partisans in the West and sympathizers in the Western media widely portrayed this as a major threat to the Islamic Republic's longevity and stability. But "vastly more Iranians took to the streets on December 30, in demonstrations organized by the government to show support for the Islamic Republic (one Iranian Web site that opposed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election...estimated the crowds at one million people)."

The Ashura protests were hardly a show of strength for the Green Movement. After our Op-Ed was published in the New York Times, there was much tooing-and-froing in the blogosphere and in an article by Abbas Milani in the New Republic, using Google Earth pictures and testimony by Green Movement partisans to try to show that perhaps the numbers of Ashura protesters were larger than we recognized and that the December 30 pro-government demonstration was perhaps not as large as our sources claimed. But there was no getting around the empirically observable fact that the pro-government demonstration on December 30 was much larger than whatever number of "protestors" -- as opposed to people who were going to be on the streets for Ashura anyway -- actually turned out on December 27. Some hearkened back to the crowds that appeared in Tehran in the immediate aftermath of the June 12, 2009 presidential election as an indicator of the Green Movement's "real" strength. But that line of argument actually supported our analysis in January 2010, which has manifestly been proven right by subsequent events -- namely, that the Ashura episode was a clear indicator of the Movement's decline. Memarian may not like that, but it is reality.

Memarian implicitly acknowledges one of the subsequent events that has validated our analysis of the Green Movement's decline -- the February 11 anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founding -- by claiming that the Movement never wanted to use the 22 Bahman observances as a target for protests. This is a grotesque rewriting of history that should not be allowed to go unchallenged. As we pointed out on TheRaceForIran.com, "The most prominent establishment figures associated with the Green Movement -- Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami -- all called for their supporters to come out in February 11 to show the strength of their cause."

As we also noted,

"Many Western-based Iran watchers and Western journalists covering Iran anticipated that this would be the occasion for mass protests that would rock the Iranian government to its foundations -- marking as one journalist put it...'the beginning of the end' of the Islamic Republic."

As one example of this kind of advocacy journalism, fed by Green Movement partisans, being passed off as serious analysis, we would note that, on February 10, the New Republic's "Live Blogging the Iranian Protests" boldly asserted that "the Iranian opposition movement is slated to co-opt the state's annual rallies to stage another mass demonstration -- the largest since December's violent protests on the Shiite holy day of Ashura." No less than Karim Sadjadpour opined that

"The February 11 anniversary could be particularly significant as it is really the first time that the leadership of the opposition -- Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammed Khatami -- have implored people to take to the streets...The opposition's goal is to recreate the massive demonstrations that took place in the immediate aftermath of the election, when an estimated three million people took to the streets in Tehran."

Clearly, this did not happen. Even Karim Sadjadpour had to admit later that "it was perhaps a tactical mistake by opposition supporters to build expectations too high for this day." Another Green Movement partisan, Scott Lucas, tried to make the best of the situation by claiming that, "if the regime prevailed today, it did so in part because expectations of the opposition had been set so high" (emphasis added). Against this record, Memarian's claim that February 11 "was never meant to be the peak of the people's protests" should be considered outright dissembling on his part.

In the end, Memarian retreats, like so many of his allies, to criticizing our bad manners in pointing out the reality that the Green Movement's ability to mobilize crowds has for some time been in steep decline by blaming this state of affairs on a draconian response by Iranian security forces. As Memarian writes:

"The government has had to arrest thousands of people, and continues to do so, has killed dozens, and has sentenced at least ten protestors to death for 'throwing rocks' and similar bogus charges...Not to mention that the government had 8 months to get out of shock mode and to utilize its propaganda machine in order to show the world, and people like the Leveretts, that they have brought the protests under control and the movement is extinguished..With the government using execution sentences, rape and torture to prevent people from protesting, of course it is forcing the Movement to change its course away from street protests."

It is politically very incorrect to say this, but it needs to be said: compared to what the Iranian government is capable of doing, its response to the protests surrounding the June 2009 presidential election has been comparatively restrained. Every loss of life, especially a young life, is a tragedy -- but there is no "Tiananmen Square" here, with security forces wading into crowds and shooting down hundreds or protestors in a single episode. Not even close.

The vast majority of the people who were incarcerated after June 12, 2009 have been released. If the Green Movement really represented a fundamental challenge to the Islamic Republic, the response of the security apparatus so far would not have stopped it. Many more people died in clashes with Iranian security forces in the eleven months preceding the overthrow of the Shah's regime than have died in clashes with security forces in the period since June 12, 2009. In 1978-89, the crowds kept getting bigger, until the security forces and the Shah's government were overwhelmed. In 2009-10, the crowds have, effectively, disappeared. Surely that fact is relevant to an objective assessment of the Green Movement and its prospects.

Memarian also does not like our rejection of Karim Sadjadpour's claim that the Islamic Republic's foreign policy debate is too ideologically constrained to allow for a strategic opening to the United States on the grounds that such a claim is "simply not supported by the historical record." We have written extensively of that record, documenting Iranian cooperation with the United States on a number of specific foreign policy issues (e.g., post-9/11 Afghanistan) and demonstrating that, for more than 20 years, a critical mass of Iranian elites, cutting across the Islamic Republic's factional spectrum, has supported the idea of a strategic opening to the United States if that could be achieved in a way that addressed some of the Islamic Republic's most important national security and foreign policy interests. Memarian prefers not to deal with the reality of that record, instead falling back on well-worn stereotypes about "hostilities towards the United States" being "a major part" of the Islamic Republic's identity.

One particular sentence in Memarian's piece is especially outrageous. In this sentence, he writes about former President Khatami, "a moderate president that was not taken seriously by people like the Leveretts when he was in power, a miscalculation that contributed to the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005." This statement, as it pertains to us, is a flat-out lie.

The facts are that, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, we both risked our jobs to argue strenuously from our positions in the Bush Administration to engage Khatami's government, particularly over counter-terrorism and Afghanistan. We lost the argument about counter-terrorism to others in the Bush Administration, but we decisively won the argument about engaging Iran over Afghanistan. That engagement was extensive and sustained -- from 2001 to 2003. We have deep respect for President Khatami and his courageous decision to let Iranian diplomats engage with the United States over Afghanistan and al-Qaida. We believe that it was, in no small part, Khatami's decision to do this which protected Iran from becoming just another target on Secretary Rumsfeld's post-9/11 list of countries to punish for their support for groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations.

One of the things that distinguishes us from partisan commentators on Iranian politics is that we are not interested in picking Iran's leaders -- we are not Iranian voters, after all -- or choosing potential Iranian interlocutors for the United States. Rather, we believe that it is vital for the United States to establish a strategic rapprochement with the Islamic Republic as it is constituted and with the Iranian government as it is, not as some might wish it to be. The Islamic Republic is a system of government, and the United States should treat it as a system. In the end, President Ahmadinejad is term limited. There will be a new president of the Islamic Republic in 2013. We believe that the United States should do all it can to realign its relations with the Islamic Republic while Ahmadinejad is in office because the "price" that Washington has to pay for better relations with Tehran will only increase with time -- regardless of whether Ahmadinejad's successor is perceived as more "reformist" or "principalist."

It seems to us that what really bothers Memarian about our analysis of Iranian politics is that we have been consistently right, whereas he, Karim Sadjadpour, and others who share their enthusiasm for the Green Movement have been consistently wrong about Iranian politics over the last year. People are entitled to hold and espouse whatever partisan political positions they like. But the test for an analyst is to be right. If partisanship means that people are consistently wrong in their reading of a subject as important as contemporary Iranian politics, they should not be considered objective analysts of that subject.