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Iran: Desperately Seeking Sensible US Comment about 22 Bahman

Of course, snap reaction from the US of this week's events in Iran was unlikely to catch the depth of the developments and the prospects for the future. The disturbing while gleeful response of Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett was to be expected. (And, yes, I use "disturbing" without reservation: have a look at their "analysis" to see how they try to wipe away the post-election detentions, trials, and abuses.) Unsurprisingly, some Bush-era advocates of US power, having embraced the Green movement for "regime change", backtracked when the Government did not fall on Thursday --- Charles Krauthammer pronounced, "The regime has succeeded today, and unless there is some later demonstration of the power of the opposition, it could be a turning point in this process and the one that the regime will celebrate."

However, what is most disturbing is how an analyst like Marc Lynch, normally quite good about Middle Eastern affairs, could issue this declaration after a superficial review of 22 Bahman and the Green movement, "I fully believe that the Iranian regime is more unpopular and less legitimate than ever before -- but just don't see it as especially vulnerable at the moment." It is disturbing not because Lynch is duplicitous; to the contrary, he carries enough weight of expertise and of honesty in his approach for his analysis to race around the Washington network of political columnists as the final wisdom on the subject.

(A similar point could be made about Juan Cole, another influential interpreter of the Middle East and Iran, with his reductionist conclusion: "Ahmadinejad has his Alliance of Builders in Tehran, and is backed by the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij paramilitary, and other security forces. Musavi has the little flashmobs who couldn't, at least on Thursday.")

I understand and sympathise with Lynch's motives --- "We'd all do better if we could focus public discourse less on hopes for regime change and war, and more on the less sexy but more helpful question of how to make a negotiations strategy work" --- but he has fallen prey to the trap of "raised expectations", even as he identifies it in his article. To declare the regime and Government secure, when those who have been watching the situation for months have held to "marathon, not a sprint", is a short-cut based more on analytic expediency than on careful study.

And Lynch's portrayal of the choices is a straw-man to match his reading of events. Pronouncing "regime change" (which is more an option created by those outside Iran, rather than those protesting inside the country) and "war" (which is a remote possibility in the near-future) as the only alternatives to sitting down with the Ahmadinejad Government is just as much a deception as the manoeuvres of the Leveretts or the Bush-era advocates of "down with the mullahs".

(Indeed, Lynch's conclusion puts him alongside the Leveretts, even if his analysis is put much more honestly and thoughtfully than their bang-the-drum advocacy.)

Instead of declaring the opposition dead or peripheral, perhaps one should do it the justice of considering that the best alternative to negotiations with Tehran is simply no grand declarations and "no negotiations". The battle over political authority is one which should be left to Iranians. Conferring legitimacy on a Government that many of them see as illegitimate is an unnecessary intervention; it is adding insult to injury to distort and minimise the "Green movement" in support of that strategy.

Reader Comments (6)

Well oh happy day, Mr. Lucas, on your conclusion. Thank you.

IMHO, at this point, 'negotiating' with the IRI is rather an oxymoron. (observe their performance record to date). They only use its facade as a distraction and as a 'see, we're legitimate, we have a seat at their table' tool now.

Some facts rarely emphasized/mentioned in most commentaries:

IRI is going broke (factual data on that - will they simply float another bond to pay their security minions or just 'borrow' what they need from some current bond issue?);

Iran's budding independent labor movement (against all odds);

subsidy withdrawal hardship and inflation, ordinary inflation;

local businesses crippled by unlimited imports;

high unemployment resulting from inflation/imports;

increased taxes;

the demographics of Iran's young, pre-revolutionary population;

and much more of course. Why do commentaries omit these factors that continually affect all population levels and the entire picture in Iran? Thank you again for your comments, always insightful and appreciated.

February 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterObserver

Pardon the careless typo above. In #1, should be 'post-revolutionary' rather than 'pre-revolutionary,' obviously. Sure do miss the editing feature!

February 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterObserver

Amen, Scott.

My mama said that if you can't say something that won't hurt someone, then don't say anything at all. So for the West, how about if you can't really do anything major that won't hurt, how about not doing much of anything right now? I doubt it would hurt to just make statements here and there giving moral support to human rights and the Greens, but otherwise just sloooooooowwwwing everything down a few notches.

BTW, I have a pretty interesting tidbit I'm going to share with you shortly!

February 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Scott

Hi Scott. I appreciate several of your points, including the view that the battle for political authority in Iran should be left to Iranians.

Yet it occurs to me that your ending laconic counsel sounds ironically (and perhaps quite unintentionally) like Condi Rice. For years, she kept proclaiming that the US would not negotiate or talk with the Iranian because to do so "would confer legitimacy" upon them.

As so many students of IR noted, that then was a "novel" approach to diplomacy. Perhaps I've misunderstood or mis-characterized your missive.

February 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterscott harrop


I'm not sure Condi would appreciate this thought. I think there's a big difference between Bush Administration's 2003 strategy, during the Khatami period, of breaking off talks with Iran and advising arm's-length in 2010.

Seven years ago, while recognising all the internal issues in Iran, there was at least a Government which had been clearly elected by the people and there was not a massive challenge over legitimacy. There were also clear benefits from establishing "normal" relations.

I don't think, in these circumstances, that "normal" is possible. Nor do I think there is an imminent Iran threat if the US Government holds off on nuclear bargaining. So, to spare Condi any headaches, I don't think we're quite in the same political boat.


February 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

From one of my Notes on Facebook:

First, this was Revolution Day. Expecting the Green Movement to swarm over and overwhelm the regime forces on this day of all days is roughly akin to expecting the same against the American government on the 4th of July or the government of the former Soviet Union on 7 November. Reality check (myself included).

Second, our expectations were greatly raised by the events of Ashura. Perhaps we had forgotten that the greater-than-expected turnout on that day was due in large part to it coinciding with the 7th day after the death of Imam Montazeri.

Third, the massive stormtrooper overkill may have prevented massive green presence at the site of the official observance of the stolen revolution, but it could not stop protestors from marching.

Fourth, I noted elsewhere that protests were more widespread in terms of the number of cities they occured than on any other occasion than Ashura. This may not have been accurate; I believe that in fact more cities had protests on 22 Bahman than even on Ashura, such as Ahvaz.

Fifth, there were numerous reports of women protestors in various parts of Tehran discarding their head scarves as they marched. This has never happened in any previous protest.

Sixth, the green movement has been protesting nonviolently for eight months, and no matter how many the regime arrests, tortures, rapes, or murders either outright or by decree of kangaroo court, still people come out.

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Hamilton

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