Who’s Misreading Tehran?

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett take issue with FP's "Misreading Tehran" package.

Foreign Policy‘s "Misreading Tehran" package (July/August 2010) is, for the most part, a disappointing example of the phenomenon it purports to explain — inaccurate interpretations of Iranian politics surrounding the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election.

It is certainly true that much of the American media — including some of the writers featured in the series — got the story of Iranian politics over the last year spectacularly wrong. But the problem wasn’t reporting constraints, as the articles suggest. The real culprit was — and, unfortunately, still is — willfully bad journalism and analysis, motivated in at least some cases by writers’ personal political agendas.

In fact, it was possible to get the story right, and some did. (At the risk of seeming immodest, we count ourselves among them.) But to have done so, writers would have needed to care more about reality and analytic truth than their personally preferred political outcomes or having a "sexier" story to sell.

From literally the morning after the election, the vast majority of Western journalists and U.S.-based Iran "experts" rushed to the conclusion that the outcome had to have been the result of fraud. Poor coverage of the election paved the way for the even worse coverage of the "Green Movement" that followed. These journalists and commentators largely succeeded in turning the notion of a fraudulent election in Iran into a "social fact" in the United States — just as other commentators helped turn myths about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction into "social facts" before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It is still possible to stop such a tragic repetition of history — but only if people are prepared to abandon self-gratifying and self-serving illusions about Iran and look reality squarely in the face.

Flynt Leverett
Director, Iran Initiative
The New America Foundation

Hillary Mann Leverett
CEO, Stratega
Washington, D.C.

Reza Aslan replies:

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s suggestion to abandon self-serving illusions and face reality on Iran is good advice. They should follow it.

I included the Leveretts in my analysis of "What We Got Wrong" on Iran because their easy dismissal of the Green Movement was just as inaccurate as the view of those in the media who thought the Iranian regime was about to collapse. However, the difference between them and the rest of the analysts highlighted in my essay is that the Leveretts, despite their claims to the contrary, continue to get it wrong.

For years, the Leveretts have been pushing the United States to engage Iran, arguing correctly that the only way to deal with Iran’s regional ambitions is through dialogue and diplomacy. But in pursuing that goal, they have fostered an inaccurate portrait of the current state of affairs in Iran, which, thanks in large part to the actions of the Green Movement, has rarely been less stable than it is today.

The Iranian economy is teetering on the verge of collapse. The country has never been more internationally isolated, with both Russia and China hardening their positions vis-à-vis its nuclear program. The political rise of the Revolutionary Guard has created new alliances between reformists like Mohammad Khatami, centrists like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and conservatives like Ali Larijani, which will prove detrimental to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when it comes time to select a new supreme leader.

To say that all this is irrelevant and should be ignored so as to plod ahead with negotiations — indeed, to talk about Iran as though it has been unaltered by the events of the last year — is, to paraphrase the Leveretts, willfully bad analysis, motivated by a personal political agenda.

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