A Critique of Fareed Zakaria's Uninformed Commentary on Iran [Part 2]

06/25/2010 03:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fareed Zakaria has been able to get more recognition for his name throughout his years as the editor of Newsweek, and now as the host of Global Public Square on CNN. And usually, he deserves it. He brings in a fresh perspective and is of course able to bring some level of diversity to the previously predominantly white male institution that is U.S. foreign policy opinion making.

However, every once in a while, he seems to give in to conventional wisdom and expresses other people's highly uninformed and naïve opinions as his own. He expressed one of those opinions last Sunday when he criticized Senator McCain's speech at the National Endowment for Democracy during this institutions awarding of the 2010 Democracy Award to the Iranian Green Movement. There were so many inaccurate points in this five-minute opinion about Iran that warrants a two-part piece to counter. Part 1 was published on Wednesday. Here is part 2.

Maziar Bahari is a respected Iranian journalist who was unfairly detained and imprisoned in Iran. But Fareed Zakaria's obsession with him is reaching new heights. Out of thousands of people who have been arrested by Iran, Zakaria has already given his former coworker from Newsweek, Mr. Bahari, special treatment by covering his ordeal multiple times and repeatedly having him on his show. And he seems to take his opinion above all else. The problem is that every single individual has opinions that fall way outside of mainstream.

For example, Mr. Bahari may be saying that Ayatollah Khamenei is the most popular figure in Iran. But Bahari for the most part is the only public figure in the media who has made such an outlandish assertion. Here is a quote from the Guardian piece that reported on Iran's plans to fly the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad to Syria a few months ago when the regime saw itself on the verge of collapse: "Khamenei is so paranoid, he says, that he has lost confidence in his own security team and has installed his own intelligence unit behind his office with bugging and surveillance equipment that allows his office to spy on their own spies. He is also rumoured to change his bodyguards daily because of a fear of assassination."

The fact that Zakaria only states an off-mainstream and extreme opinion about Ayatollah Khamenei without indicating that the vast majority of public figures in the global media and journalism have a different opinion is uninformed reporting.

Although in this segment, Mr. Zakaria attempts to express his first nuanced and original analysis on the situation in Iran, it falls short of matching with reality. There are two specific problems with this analysis. The first one is that just because the regime attempts to use religion and nationalism, it does not mean that the people see the regime's claims on those factors as legitimate. The regime has to come up with some explanations to justify its brutality. Those explanations are not offered as a way to convince anyone; they are just simply space fillers, designed to fill a void that is created when someone asks, "Why would the regime do such horrific things?" If the regime wanted to convincingly have a claim on religion, they would never have allowed the mass raping of hundreds if not thousands of arrested protesters to take place in prisons. Ayatollah Khamenei could have issued a reprimand, declaring such rapes fundamentally un-Islamic and put an end to it once and for all. But he has chosen not to do so because it is more important for him and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that the people be fearful that those things could happen to them if they continue to protest rather than become convinced that the regime is living up to its claim on religion.

The same issue relates to nationalism. Yes, the nuclear program has been a source of national pride for many Iranians. But unlike those in Washington, it is by no means the only source, or the strongest source. In 2008, Iranians started an international effort to collect signatures for a petition that called on Google to remove all user-placed instances of "Arabian Gulf" from Google Earth. When it comes to nationalism, what is a true source of concern for Iranian youth is that they are being ruled by a series of clerics who begin their speeches with Arabic verses of the Quran, ban the singing of many Persian songs and poems and are diluting the historic Persian identity that they take so much pride in.

There is a famous story about the time when Ayatollah Khomeini was returning to Iran following the Iranian Revolution after ten years of exile. While on the plane, Peter Jennings, the ABC news reporter asked Khomeini, "What do you feel in returning to Iran?" Khomeini responds, "hichi (nothing)" Thinking he heard incorrectly, translator repeats his answer, "hichi?" Khomeini responds, "Hich ehsasi nadaram (I have no feelings)."

The reality is that nationalism has never been a fundamental underpinning of the Islamic Republic. The only kind of nationalism that Khomeini ever believed in was Islamic nationalism. Some argue that it was Khomeini's calls for Shiites in Iraq to ride on the coattails of the Iranian revolution and revolt against Saddam Hussein that provoked that dictator to attack Iran, which sparked the beginning of an eight-year war that took the lives of at least one million people. Even now, the Iranian regime uses its resources not to serve its own people, but to fund groups like hamas and Hezbollah that have absolutely no cultural or national links. So the notion that the Iranian regime can now use nationalism in an equally convincing way as the Green Movement simply has no merit.

The second issue with Zakaria's analysis is that the factors that Zakaria highlights are pretty arbitrary and leave out critical elements that drive Iranians to participate in the Green Movement with the vigor that they have been. If you ask Iranians in the street what factors matter most to them, they will likely only mention one of Zakaria's three factors -- democracy -- as a motivating force. And this probably would not be the first element. What are likely to be at the top of that list are the economy, followed by human rights and women's rights. What is important to note about these factors is that on all of them, the Iranian regime has a dismal record and absolutely incapable of making a case for itself. On that last two of three, it doesn't even claim to have done well and instead dismisses the concepts of human and women rights altogether as a Western concept. Zakaria's analysis sounds lofty and intellectual and may impress some in foreign policy circles, but it is simply not indicative of where Iran stands today.

But ending on a positive note, Zakaria is correct that taking any military action against Iran is likely to have the short-term effect of rallying a large segment of the population around Ahmadinejad. This notion is somewhat exaggerated and there will be people who will welcome and in fact are already calling for military action. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of it will likely be to undercut the legs from under the reformers.

But what's also important to note here is that a military action won't really do anything to make any significant change to the progress of the nuclear program either. Iran already has over 4,000 centrifuges, built underground and spread underground and under populated areas. No reasonable amount of bunker buster missiles can more than set the program behind by five to ten years.

What this should lead policymakers and the Obama administration to conclude is that the only way to permanently get reassured that Iran will not produce a nuclear weapon is to vigorously support democratization in Iran through international institutions and diplomatic means, and the creation of a system that brings Iran into the global community in a constructive way instead of robbing its citizens of its resources, future and rightful place in the world.

____________________ PostScript: Sam's Response to Comments