Daniel W. Drezner

What color is the sky in Leverettland? [UPDATED]

What color is the sky in Leverettland? [UPDATED]

I was wondering how the Leveretts would respond to the Ashura protests from last month.  Now I have my answer:  an op-ed in the New York Times in which they argue "The Islamic Republic of Iran is not about to implode. Nevertheless, the misguided idea that it may do so is becoming enshrined as conventional wisdom in Washington." 

Their op-ed is worth a good hard look, precisely because it does push back against the conentional wisdom in Washington.  It’s not the popular thing to say that the Obama administration should double down on engagement, and I respect that they’re willing to make the exact same arguments for engagement that they did before the June protests. 

However, it is also worth remembering Drezner’s Eleventh Commandment for Policy Wonks:  just because you’re going against the conventional wisdom doesn’t mean you’re right. 

As the Leveretts note on their blog site, "It is hard to do serious political analysis of a contested political environment when one is, in effect, ‘rooting’ for one of the contestants."  So true* — but scanning their op-ed, the Leveretts appear to have their own rooting interest.  Consider these two paragraphs:

[A]ssertions that the Islamic Republic is now imploding in the fashion of the shah’s regime in 1979 do not hold up to even the most minimal scrutiny. Antigovernment Iranian Web sites claim there were “tens of thousands” of Ashura protesters; others in Iran say there were 2,000 to 4,000. Whichever estimate is more accurate, one thing we do know is that much of Iranian society was upset by the protesters using a sacred day to make a political statement.

Vastly more Iranians took to the streets on Dec. 30, in demonstrations organized by the government to show support for the Islamic Republic (one Web site that opposed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June estimated the crowds at one million people). Photographs and video clips lend considerable plausibility to this estimate — meaning this was possibly the largest crowd in the streets of Tehran since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s funeral in 1989. In its wake, even President Ahmadinejad’s principal challenger in last June’s presidential election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, felt compelled to acknowledge the “unacceptable radicalism” of some Ashura protesters.

The possibility of a backlash to the Ashura protests is certainly an interesting one, and should be explored further.  I want to focus on the numbers bandied about in these two paragraphs, however.  The first graph suggests that the number of protestors on Ashura ranged from 2,000 to "tens of thousands," placing those as the acceptable bounds.  OK, but multiple news outlets, including the New York Times, have mentioned "hundreds of thousands of Iranians" out on the streets on that day.  It seems a bit odd to cap the upper bound at "tens of thousands."

The second paragraph suggests a million supporters came out on December 30th in Tehran to support the government, citing one website.  OK, but there are other press reports that suggested a much lower number — "tens of thousands," according to the Los Angeles Times.  Again, it seems odd not to suggest the range of estimates. 

[UPDATE:  as Andrew Sullivan,  Scott Lucas, and several commenter have observed, a distinction should be made between government workers told to march without repercussions, and the hundred of thousands risking their lives challenge the Khamenei regime.]

Again, I’m not saying that there were more Ashura protestors than government protestors — I too would like to see the data on this question presented in an objective manner.  I am saying that the Leveretts seem to be cherry-picking their protest numbers — which makes me seriously doubt the objectivity of the rest of their analysis. 

UPDATE:  I see that my FP overlords FP’s editors have the good sense to publish Hooman Majd’s assessment of the situation in Iran, which is well worth reading — as is Robin Wright’s analysis of recent opposition manifestos in the Los Angeles Times

 ANOTHER UPDATE:  Kevin Sullivan at RealClear World is correct to point out that the Leveretts are asking the right analytical questions in their op-ed — questions others have also been asking.  Based on the way they’ve skewed framed their data, however,  I simply don’t put much faith in their answers. 

LAST UPDATE:  The Leveretts respond in the comments section — and be sure to check out the follow-ups as well. 

*And I should now fully disclose that I’ve received funding and/or affiliation and/or membership from at least six seven eight of the organizations now blacklisted by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (hat tip:  Steve Clemons, whose New America Foundation received the double-dip, along with the International Republican Institute).