A response to F. Leverett and H. M. Leverett's Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Metropolitan Books, 2013.
Recently, the authors of Going to Tehran argued that "the United States will have to pursue rapprochement with the Islamic Republic as it is, not as some wish it to be. And this means accepting the Islamic Republic as, for most Iranians, a legitimate (even if flawed) state." They also added that "those who believe they can indulge self-gratifying criticisms of human rights conditions in Iran while continuing to insist that they are opposed to American military aggression against the Islamic Republic are, in some ways even more dangerously deluded. You can't have it both ways."
But this argument, as well as their suggestion that the U.S. government should pursue a rapprochement with the Iranian regime, is misconceived.
In order to make their case, they argue that the regime enjoys majority support and they regard the 2009 presidential election as broadly free and fair. But was it? In Iran, there is a non-constitutional body called the 'Discretionary Observation' (nezarate estesvaabi), which effectively decides, on behalf of the supreme leader, who can and cannot run for the office of president. This limits the choices that people have when voting in advance. The system is based on one of the regime's core ideological principles, which is that people should be treated as minors (segaar) who are incapable of deciding what is in their own best interests.
Furthermore, even if we disregard all the facts which point to systematic vote rigging in the 2009 presidential election, a simple calculation easily demonstrates the likelihood that it took place. The regime claims that 40 million people voted. The Interior Ministry stated that 31,455 fixed and 14,258 mobile ballot boxes were available, being open for 10 hours in cities and lesser amounts of time in towns and villages. Even if we considered that voting centers were open for 13 hours on average, and that the average voting time in fixed boxes was one and a half minutes and in mobiles boxes five minutes, we can see that a maximum of 20 million people could have voted, leaving 20 million votes to be designated as rigged or otherwise false. In light of these points, how is it possible to claim that the ruling regime in Iran have legitimacy?
When a regime has legitimacy and public support, it does not need to systematically violate people's rights. It does not need to treat them like minors who are incapable of making the "correct" choices or to make decisions on their behalves. It would not have needed to declare war on millions of people who were peacefully protesting against a fraudulent election, killing yet-unknown numbers and arresting and torturing thousands more. A legitimate government would not need to imprison the presidential candidates, Musavi and Karubi, who refuse to recognize the rigged election. The policy of such a regime does not need to be based on al-nasr-bel-rob (victory through terrorization), an approach that is advocated by Khamenei, the supreme leader. All of these actions indicate that the regime lacks popularity and legitimacy. The levels of corruption and criminality within the regime are so high that Ayatollah Montazeri, who was a leading theoretician of velayat faqhi (the rule of the jurist, which is the theological and legal pillar of the regime), and who was to be Khomeini's successor, came to the conclusion that the absolute rule of the faqih is blasphemous.
Leverett and Leverett also argue that we should turn a blind eye to the violation of human rights in Iran in order to avoid the greater evil of military intervention. As much as it is possible to sympathize with their intention, one cannot ignore the fact that this is a false dichotomy which will place the Iranian people between a rock and a hard place if taken seriously. The argument that criticizing the violation of human rights only provides an excuse for the US government to intervene militarily in Iran fails when tested against reality.
The Arab Spring is a prime example of this. Prior to these revolutions, the U.S. government were not only ignoring human rights violations in Arab countries with which they had close relations, but after 9/11 had also been sending kidnapped suspects to these 'friendly' countries in order to extract information from them by torture. In Tunisia and Egypt, when people opposed the violation of human rights and overthrew the existing regimes, such protests did not lead to military intervention. On the contrary, they were supported by global public opinion.
In Libya and Syria, there was no foreign intervention in response to the violation of human rights by these regimes, but foreign governments later become involved in the development of civil wars in which armed groups replaced protestors. We are also observing the systematic violation of human rights by pro-US governments in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which has not led to military intervention. On the contrary, in the case of countries like Bahrain, it has led to foreign military intervention to repress civil rights movements while the US government tries to look the other way.
What we learn from these examples is that domestic or internal violence does not always provide an excuse for interference by foreign powers. Turning a blind eye to the violation of human rights, on the other hand, not only makes it more difficult for people to rise up against a despotic regime, but provides space for military groups which have lent their services to foreign powers, especially the US, to hijack public discontent and turn peaceful mass movements into a civil wars.
What should be done?
The way to avoid war and lift the crippling economical sanctions which are breaking the backs of ordinary Iranians is not to tell the U.S. and Iranian governments to accept each other's existence, but to expose the relationship that already exists between them. This relationship is based on maintaining a constant state of mutual crisis in both economic and political war. The roots of this relationship can be traced back to the occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the taking of Americans hostages, during which time the dictatorial front within the Iranian regime gained strength.
At the time, it had been trying to monopolize the power of the state but lacked majority support. It soon understood that it could fill this deficit by keeping the country in a state of crisis. It found allies within the American state, Reaganists who made a secret deal to release the American hostages (an arrangement now known as the 'October Surprise'). When this crisis ended, the regime remained insecure about its position. It orchestrated a coup in June 1981, which prolonged the war with Iraq for seven years while strengthening the bases upon which its dictatorship was built. It was during this time that we also observed the continuation of a clandestine relationship with the Reagan administration, which was later exposed as Iran-Contra. Since then, the Iranian regime has moved the country from one crisis to another and from many minor crises to major ones, such as the Rushdie affair and the nuclear issue, which have unnecessarily been prolonged for years and cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars. It has also made it possible for despotic kingdoms in the Persian Gulf to steals hundreds of billions of dollars of Iran's oil and gas from shared fields.
There is no doubt that even if the nuclear issue is resolved, the regime will create other crises. But it has been weakened by this long struggle for power. These crises are only symptoms of deeper underlying problems. As long as the causes of these problems are not addressed, the regime will keep producing crisis, inflict more misery on the lives of Iranians and provide opportunities for right-wing politicians in the west to legitimize aggressive policies based on fear.
As the current Iranian regime is the product of such power relations both domestically and internationally, real and long lasting change can take place only when Iranians themselves change these power relations by becoming citizens and getting rid of a regime which has usurped their right to own their destiny for thirty years. Such a change, when based on principles of independence and freedom, will make it possible to change regional and international power relations as well. The removal of one side of this relation from domestic and international politics will be good news for non-Iranian people as well, as it will weaken the regime's western counterparts by depriving them of the enemy that they need to justify aggressive policies, hence providing opportunities for progressive forces to refocus on addressing the worsening economic situation in their countries and around the world.