Asking the Wrong Questions About Iran

03/18/2010 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times the day before yesterday in what is perhaps the most stinging dismissal of the importance of the ongoing opposition protests in Iran. I saw several bloggers and other foreign policy experts refute many of their points, especially those about their overestimation of government-sponsored protests and underestimation of opposition protests.

Although I have covered the numbers personally for my blog, here is a very good second opinion on that on The piece on FP by Daniel Drezner also highlights several other key points including the fact that the Leveretts actually ask some very 'good' analytical questions quoting Kevin Sullivan of RealClearPolitics. I decided I'd take a jab at those as I couldn't find any other satisfactory answers in the media or perhaps maybe I was a bit too shocked to see them get away with such a blatant attempt at skewing facts to hammer in their argument that President Barack Obama should forget about the possibility of regime change in Iran.

Here are the three questions plus a bit of commentary as given by the Leveretts after they claim that there is no revolution brewing in Iran:

Those who talk so confidently about an "opposition" in Iran as the vanguard for a new revolution should be made to answer three tough questions: First, what does this opposition want? Second, who leads it? Third, through what process will this opposition displace the government in Tehran?

In the case of the 1979 revolutionaries, the answers to these questions were clear. They wanted to oust the American-backed regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and to replace it with an Islamic republic. Everyone knew who led the revolution: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who despite living in exile in Paris could mobilize huge crowds in Iran simply by sending cassette tapes into the country. While supporters disagreed about the revolution's long-term agenda, Khomeini's ideas were well known from his writings and public statements. After the shah's departure, Khomeini returned to Iran with a draft constitution for the new political order in hand. As a result, the basic structure of the Islamic Republic was set up remarkably quickly.

Let's see what ancient China has to offer on this before I offer my assessment. Back in the olden days, this man traveled hundreds of miles to meet a Taoist sage somewhere in China. After the necessary greetings he said, "I have come a long way to ask you something. What is the answer to the ultimate question in the universe?" The sage smiled and barked, "Well, that is not what you should be asking. You should ask: is there an answer to the ultimate question in the universe?"

In the case of the Leveretts' questions, I'm bitterly reminded of the aforementioned parable.

Consider the first question which is rather fair: what does this opposition want?

Well, certainly not what Mir Hossein Mousavi wants. Even if we ignore the protesters' repeated calls for the freedom of detainees and other chants that call for help from Imam Hossein against tyranny, I think "Down with the Dictator" seems like a perfect slogan that embodies the demands of the protesters. It has been heard for the past six months and I think enough people have heard it to consider it as a clear demand of the opposition movement. Every time there is a protest in any part of Iran, "Down with the Dictator" is heard loud and clear.

In recent months, however, protesters have also widely started chanting against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri was filled with chants against him. Ashura's protests were similarly blamed by the regime for committing the same offense.

Certainly, Mousavi is still bargaining with the government. However, people on the street aren't ready to chicken out of their demands, even in the face of gun-fire. If the government hadn't forcefully stopped them from popularizing their demands through the media, you would have seen them much more clearly.

The second question is one the Taoist sage would have barked at: Who leads it?

The Leveretts attempt to somehow fool us into believing that their question is fair by paralleling it with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Thus, hammering in the point that somehow revolutions need leaders and somehow because the current protesters don't have one -- this is not a revolution. Au contrare, it is not a prerequisite for revolutions to have leaders. Thus, this question is completely irrelevant and does not even need to be answered.

But for the sake of clarity, I'll provide an example of a leaderless revolution: the February Revolution of 1917 that overthrew Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Academics are generally in agreement that it was without what we today consider a definite and centralized leadership. If you consider scattered activists working together to bring people out to protest as leaders, then Iran has no shortage of those. And the best part, Mousavi -- considered the de-facto leader of the current protesters -- didn't even sanction or support protests that were joined by hundreds of thousands that came out during the recent protests in Ashura.

The third question made me smirk because it has nothing to do what we're talking about here: Third, through what process will this opposition displace the government in Tehran?

Well, I wish I knew. But just because the protesters demands have not been met yet, does not mean that we need to figure how they are going to achieve them. It's their job and they've been coming out onto the streets of Iran, chanting as loud as they can, getting arrested and spilling blood for the past six months showing their commitment to achieving those demands.

Who knows what might overthrow the regime? Maybe the Islamic Republic of Iran Army (Artesh) will finally step in. Maybe millions would turn up and storm Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's house and the parliament. Maybe the violence will get so rampant that the leaders of Iran would simply board a plane to Moscow and flee. This we don't know.

But we do know that simply because they have not met their goals yet, does not mean they won't in the future. Again, the Leveretts attempt to parallel this with the Revolution of 1979 to somehow force us into believing that we need to know how. We really don't. When it happens, we will. Until then, all we can do is support them because they're not just fighting for political rights, but for their human rights. If President Obama believes the Leveretts and discounts the power of the Green Movement, he risks making enemies of a future more open and secular Iran just like Jimmy Carter did when he discounted the Revolution of 1979.

Not to mention the fact that he would be guilty of legitimizing an illegitimate regime.

The Leveretts' piece made me really grateful to an old professor of mine Dr. Rick Schubert, bless him. Dr. Schubert gave me a D in Philosophy 101, but he taught me what now has become my golden rule: questions are equally as important as the answers to them, so be careful before you ask. Maybe the Leveretts should attend one of his classes.