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Up For Debate: Do Insiders or Outsiders Have the Clearer View of Iran?

In the last issue of The New Republic, Abbas Milani offers a critical take on Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's new book Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In their response below, the Leveretts say Milani's review illustrates "how Iranian expatriates and Iranian-Americans with an animus against the Islamic Republic warp our ongoing Iran debate." And Milani, in a rebuttal to to the Leveretts, concludes that "an embarrassing lack of knowledge [underlies] their accusations."

Hillary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett write:

While Abbas Milani ostensibly offers a review of our book, it serves a more useful purpose by illustrating how Iranian expatriates and Iranian-Americans with an animus against the Islamic Republic warp our ongoing Iran debate.

Americans have let disaffected expatriates with no popular base in their countries of origin distort important policy discussions before—from the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco and the ongoing embarrassment of America’s Cuba policy to Iraqi expatriates’ bogus claims about Iraqi WMD, Saddam’s ties to al-Qaeda, and the Shangri-La of post-Saddam Iraqi politics prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Milani’s article exemplifies how expatriates with no direct contact to on-the-ground reality in Iran are now distorting debate with agenda-driven fantasies.

Two seemingly small mistakes underscore Milani’s disregard for empirical truth. He describes us as living in Maryland; actually, we live in Virginia, as stated on the “About the Authors” page and the back jacket flap. Also, Milani aspires to undermine our credibility by linking us to the University of Tehran’s Seyed Mohammad Marandi, whom we acknowledge as our colleague and friend and whose writings and statements we cite. Specifically, Milani holds,

Virtually all [the Leveretts’] knowledge about Iran comes from what they call their Iranian ‘interlocutors,’ or high-ranking Iranian officials, or their friend and occasional co-author Seyed Mohammad Marandi, whom they introduce as ‘a scholar well connected with Iranian foreign policy circles.’ In truth, Marandi is not just himself a polished ideologue of the regime, but through his father—a physician to [Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei—he is connected to the very center of power.”

Leaving aside Milani’s subjective caricature, his objectively testable statement that Seyed Mohammad’s father, Alireza Marandi, is “a physician to Khamenei” is false. Dr. Marandi is a neonatologist—a pediatrician specializing in the care of premature infants. (In the 1970s, he held a faculty post in neonatology at a U.S. medical school.) Claiming that he treats the 73-year-old Khamenei is ludicrous.

Though seemingly small, this is revealing of Milani’s modus operandi. The claim that Dr. Marandi is Khamenei’s physician comes from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an expatriate filmmaker who presented himself after Iran’s 2009 presidential election as defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s international representative. To enhance his allure to Westerners, Makhmalbaf published online articles purporting to catalog Khamenei’s personal and political corruption; in one, Makhmalbaf describes Alireza Marandi as Khamenei’s physician. The allegations were unsubstantiated—not least because Makhmalbaf was never in a position to know the things he claimed to. But Milani’s reliance on Makhmalbaf’s tabloid nonsense is typical: he prefers a manufactured claim from someone who could not possibly know it is true (Makhmalbaf says Alireza Marandi is Khamenei’s doctor) over easily verified reality (Dr. Marandi is a neonatologist). That is all too characteristic of how expatriate Iran “experts” distort America’s Iran debate.

In this regard, Milani’s career is instructive. Born in Iran in 1949, he came as a teenager to California, where he completed high school, attended college, and embraced Maoist Marxism. After earning a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Hawaii, he returned to Iran and was imprisoned by the Shah’s government for his Marxist views. After the revolution, Milani taught at the University of Tehran before moving back to California in 1986. For years, he taught at a small Catholic college, publishing intermittently in obscure nonacademic outlets. Then, in 2001, a group of wealthy Iranian Americans endowed a fellowship for Milani and his Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution; he also began teaching as a visiting professor in Stanford’s political science department. In 2005, prosperous Iranian-Americans endowed the directorship of Stanford’s (one-man) Iranian studies program for him, a platform from which he depicts Iran as a nation longing for secular liberalism. Milani—who has never earned tenure at Stanford—has this platform because donors sharing his goal of ending the Islamic Republic paid for it.

Contrary to Churchill’s observation that “history is written by the victors,” Americas have let their understanding of contemporary Iran be shaped largely by “losers”—Iranians who lost their struggle for power after the Shah’s departure in January 1979. Protecting the losers’ narrative motivates Milani’s (remarkably long) screed against us.

The losers’ narrative can’t afford for the Islamic Republic to be perceived as a legitimate expression of the Iranian people’s aspirations. So Milani must attack our argument that Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father, cannot rightly be said to have “captured” what should have been a secular liberal revolution, because “there would have been no revolution without him.” Milani thunders, “The Iranian revolution was conducted in the name of freedom, dignity, and independence, and not for a government where one man claims to represent the voice of God. Only regime apologists dispute this fact.”

But consider these facts: Every prominent anti-Shah figure—including leaders of the secular liberal National Front, the more religious but still liberal Liberation Movement, the communist Tudeh party, and even the mojahedin-e khalq (MEK)—acknowledged that only Khomeini had the popular standing to mobilize ever larger segments of Iranian society into mass action. And at every major juncture in the Islamic Republic’s creation—the March 1979 referendum on the nature of a post-monarchical state, the August 1979 elections for an assembly to draft its constitution, and the December 1979 referendum ratifying that constitution—Khomeini asked for and received the public’s overwhelming support.

Why is Milani entitled to exclude these facts from discussions of the revolution’s true character or the legitimacy of the political order that emerged from it? Why are he and other expatriate opponents of the Islamic Republic allowed to dismiss as “apologists” those who point out that it has achieved more progressive outcomes in alleviating poverty, delivering health care, expanding educational access, and (yes) expanding opportunities for women than the Shah’s regime ever did?

The losers’ narrative also animates Milani’s fulminations against our assessment of America’s role in the Iran-Iraq War. While conceding that we “rightfully criticize the Reagan administration for not seriously condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, and for the tragic downing of an Iranian passenger plane by the American carrier Vincennes in 1988,” he denounces our critique of U.S. support for Saddam’s war of aggression—for the losers’ narrative can’t allow the Islamic Republic to be seen as a legitimate entity defending legitimate national interests.

Milani pretends to refute us by quoting Mark Gasiorowski that “a CIA officer gave two briefings [to Iran’s new government] in mid-October [1979] warning…that Iraq was making preparations for a possible invasion of Iran.” But what Gasiorowski recounts is analytic speculation, a year before Saddam attacked; what we document is far more concrete and timely. We cite the Agency’s then-Iran desk officer, speaking on the record, on CIA acquisition of hard human intelligence on Saddam’s plan to invade three weeks beforehand; we quote then-vice president Mondale that Washington did not try to stop Iraq because “we believed that this war would put further pressure on the Iranian government.” We also tell how Washington took Iraq off the state sponsors of terrorism list so it could support Saddam, working with allies to make sure Baghdad had steady supplies of weapons and military technology—including technology to produce chemical munitions used against Iran.

Likewise, Milani condemns our account of the 2003 “non-paper” that Tehran sent to Washington via Swiss diplomats, proposing an agenda for comprehensive realignment of relations—for the losers’ narrative can’t afford that the Islamic Republic be perceived as anything other than implacably hostile to America. Milani claims we have “no source or support” for writing that the paper was “vetted by both [then president] Khatami and Khamenei.” Not so; the Swiss ambassador who relayed it officially reported to Washington on his conversations with Iranian officials regarding its vetting by Khatami and Khamenei, and other Iranian officials have authenticated it.

The Bush administration rightly rejected the proposal, Milani writes, “because its spirit and its specifics went against everything that the Iranian regime, and particularly Ayatollah Khamenei, has said and done before [its] miraculous appearance.” This ignores a long record of Iranian cooperation with U.S. requests for help—to free American hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s, to get weapons to Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, and, after 9/11, in Afghanistan and against al-Qa’ida—in the hope of improving relations. Every time Tehran tried cooperating in this way, Washington pocketed it, shut down the dialogue, and put more sanctions on Iran. Even so, Iranian leaders—including Ayatollah Khamenei—remain open to better ties, provided America is serious about realigning relations and ready to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate interests.

Milani charges that, in assessing electoral accountability and checks and balances in the Islamic Republic’s constitutional order, we “cunningly overlook” Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and other clerics who are “close to Khamenei,” don’t like elections, and want them abolished. If there is cunning here, it is in Milani’s creation of an alternate universe, where alleged clerical views at odds with the Islamic Republic’s constitution are attributed to Khamenei and considered more reflective of reality than actual events. We don’t overlook figures like Mesbah-Yazdi—and we don’t exaggerate their influence. As we write, “To this day, there are legalist clerics (usually described by Western media as ‘ultraconservative’) who disdain the constitution’s republican components as deviating from purely clerical rule. They have not, however, been able to eliminate electoral competition from the system.” And Khamenei remains clear in his view that elections are vital to the system’s workings.

Likewise, we don’t ignore the Revolutionary Guards’ economic role or high-level political contestation—among different conservative factions as well as between conservatives and reformists. We simply refuse to treat these as either new or indicative that the system is coming apart—unlike Milani and other Iran “experts” who have said for years the Islamic Republic is verging on collapse. It’s not—but that doesn’t fit with the losers’ narrative, either.

America is at a critical juncture in its relations with Iran. Washington can either “go to Tehran,” as we recommend—“coming to terms” with the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate interests—or, at some point the United States will end up going to war against it. We believe that the latter course would prove catastrophic for America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally. But choosing the wiser alternative will require Americans to disenthrall themselves from those who, for their own reasons, paint a false picture of today’s Iran.

Abbas Milani responds:

Apologists for brutal regimes invariably emulate the habits of the regime they serve. The Leveretts, in their book, and in their rejoinder to my review show they have all too well picked up the habits—incivility, scandalous personal attacks in lieu of principled political discourse, the belief that repeating lies turns them into truths, the embrace of a paranoid-conspiratorial worldview—of their “interlocutors” in Iran.

Above all, the Leveretts show their disregard for intellectual honesty. Their response to my review, like their book, demonstrates their quixotic penchant for attributing to their critics ideas they don't have, before beating down on those ideas. (One example: I began my review of their book warning against two follies that have haunted American policy towards Iran, including the claim that the regime is “on the verge of collapse.” Yet the Leveretts claim the opposite, that I have “said for years the Islamic Republic is verging on collapse.”) Contrary to their suggestions, I make clear in my review that I am and have been against a military attack on Iran, that I am in favor of America’s unconditional negotiations with Iran, that I am critical of past American policies that supported Saddam, and that I am opposed to the idea that anyone other than Iranian people themselves should decide their future. When they are not fabricating views to attribute to me and actually address an actual point raised in the review, they still fail to respond to my central arguments.

For example, I wrote at some length about how elections are, contrary to the Leveretts claims, far from democratic in Iran, and that candidates are vetted according to the wishes of the Leader and the IRGC. I added that even these “engineered elections” are ultimately no more than consultive—God and Khamenei as His “anointed” regent on earth are the sole sovereigns according to the Constitution, not the people and their elected officials. Khamenei and Khomeini have consistently reaffirmed this undemocratic idea in their words and deeds, and the Leveretts’s only answer is to vapidly repeat that “Khamenei remains clear in his view that elections are vital to the system.” In their reply to my review, they omit mentioning the critical fact that when Ahmadinejad, Khamenei’s hand-picked president began to defy him, Khamenei floated the idea of doing away with the elected presidency, and relented only when he was faced with stiff opposition. (In considering the Leveretts’ claims about the regime’s “democratic” legitimacy, it would be wise to remember what Ayatollah Montazeri—Khomeini's chosen successor before he was put under house arrest when he objected to the murder of nearly four thousand prisoners in 1988, and the man probably most responsible for including the system of Velayat Faqih (rule by the Islamic jurist, ie: Ayatollah) in the Islamic Republic's constitution—has said about the nature of the regime before his death: the Islamic Republic, he said, is no longer either Islamic or a republic.)

In their attempt to dismiss my criticism of their book, and of the regime they so unabashedly defend—a kind of defense, incidentally, that is rare even in Iran and in the ranks of the regime, save amongst its most conservative elements—they claim I have a “disregard for empirical truth.” As examples of this “disregard” they resort to their habit of cherry-picking facts. I had said that virtually all of what this couple knows about Iran comes from their “interlocutors” in the regime, as they themselves are not lettered in Persian. How can they, I asked, with only second-hand knowledge of Iran, so confidently dismiss the testimony from the many critics who actually know the country and language, including past presidents (the last three—Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad are now considered by the regime ideologues as either supporters of “sedition” or of “deviant circles”), dozens of past ministers, past IRGC commanders, political activists and political prisoners, poets and writers, all living in Iran, who criticize the regime as despotic. Instead of answering the question, they say I offered “a subjective caricature” of their co-author, Dr. Marandi Jr. when I called him a “polished ideologue” of the regime.

They then claim to show my disregard for “empirical truth” by pointing out that I called Dr. Marandi Sr. a “physician to Khamenei” (my italic) and connected to the center of power. With apparent sarcasm, they claim that my “reliance on Makhmalbaff’s tabloid nonsense [about Dr Marandi’s role as a physician to Khamenei] is typical” of my style of work.

As usual several false surmises, and an embarrassing lack of knowledge, underlie their accusation. My information about Marandi Sr. is not from Mohsen Makhmalbaff. (Though as an internationally acclaimed film-maker who spent five years in the Shah’s prison as a Muslim opponent of the regime, and who was for the first few years after the revolution a fervent defender of the new Islamic regime, Makhmalbaff is certainly a more reliable source of information about reality in Iran than the Leveretts.) The truth is that I was living in Iran, and teaching at Tehran University when Dr. Marandi was for many years the Minister of Health—Khamenei was then the president, and Dr. Marandi was known even then to be one of the president’s trusted advisors. Moreover, I learned through the research for my biography of the Shah that when the U.S. government was considering issuing a visa to the Shah for cancer treatment in 1980, the Carter administration agreed to the demands from the Islamic regime that two trusted Iranian physicians examine the Shah and confirm that he did in fact have cancer. Dr. Marandi Sr. (as the Leveretts gleefully point out, a neonatologist) was enough of an “insider” even then to be one of the two physicians picked by the Islamic regime to examine the (60 year old) Shah. The examination never took place because the Shah demurred. Like Khomeini before him, Khamenei too has an array of trusted physicians—including orthopedic surgeons who operated on his hands when he was subjected to a failed assassination attempt, as well as Dr. Marandi Sr, and others.

Their second proof of my disregard for “empirical truth” offers even more evidence of their solipsism. The Leveretts indignantly point out that they actually live in Virginia, not Maryland, ostensibly to correct me. This is in reference to my writing that I reject all “self-declared ‘Guardians’ of the Iranian people, whether they reside in Maryland or in Tehran.” It is remarkable that they would presume they are the only self-declared “Guardians” of Iran living in America, but to clarify: in choosing Maryland, rather than their actual residence—whose details are provided in the Esquire profile I cite in my review—I was not directly and solely referring to them, but a larger cohort of regime apologists in the nation's capital. One would have liked to think that the Leveretts would have shown more humility, especially after they falsely attribute a host of policy positions to me that I do not and have never held.

They ask why I and others must be entitled “to exclude” from the discussion of the true character of the clerical regime its positive points, and why we must “dismiss as ‘apologists’” those who point out how the regime has “achieved more progressive outcomes” in areas like “(yes) expanding opportunities for women than the Shah’s regime ever did.” The answer is simple: Women have expanded their opportunities, and if the Leveretts bothered to pay attention to what I have actually written or said they would know that I have often referred to these opportunities. But I have also added that these achievements were made not because of this regime, but in spite of it. This after all is a regime whose founder, Ayatollah Khomeini opposed the right of women to vote in 1963, when the Shah wanted to pass laws about universal suffrage, and it is a regime whose leaders, in 1979 made legal the marriage of nine year old girls; it is a regime that only in the last months has declared 77 university disciplines “unfit” for women and tried to pass a law requiring all women under the age of forty to have the consent of their male guardians or a court before they could leave the country. This is after all a regime in whose laws today the life of a woman is worth half the life of a man (and the life of a Jew, Christian and Zoroastrian half the life of Muslims, and the lives of members of Bahai faith seem to have no price at all.) Apologists are people like the Leveretts who hide these realities, and try to pocket for the regime what Iranian women (and society) have gained through their struggles against their own government.

The Leveretts' personal attacks on me—nearly verbatim taken from their book—are so mendacious, so irrelevant to the substantive debate on the nature of the Islamic regime and the future of its relations with the U.S., so full of embarrassing errors, that they can not be dignified with an answer. The attacks are disturbingly resonant of the charges against me in the indictment issued in the Stalinist-era-like “show trial” staged by the regime after the contested June 2009 elections. (And their reference to my publishing record also indicates their “truthiness” problem. By the time I arrived at Stanford, contrary to their silly claim, my books in Persian and English had gone into at least forty prints, inside and outside Iran—but the Leveretts, unlettered in Persian, were either ignorant of these facts or chose to falsify them.)

In my review, I pointed out that one primary purpose of books like the Leveretts' is to create an echo chamber, where regime’s propagandists in Iran point to the book and its views to convince their lunatic fringe that figures in the West accept and extol the legitimacy of the regime. It is indeed ironic that a regime that defines part of its identity by its struggle against Western influence, and its defiance against Western values, is still comically overjoyed anytime any Western source, scholar, journalist or new-fanged “expert”—regardless of how obscure—has anything positive to say about the regime. In the case of the Leveretts, too, on cue, Fars, the official News Agencies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and considered closest to the IRGC featured a panegyric to the Leveretts' tome as their lead article. The “review” extols the book as “the most important work about U.S. Foreign policy in the new Christian Year.”

I ended my review of Leveretts’ book by fruitlessly hoping that maybe like figures in Greek tragedy, they will have their moment of peripeteia, realize all they think they know about Iran is wrong, and atone for their hubris. Their rejoinder, however, convinces me they are comic figures trapped by their character in an absurd, and unresolveable, predicament.