The Losers’ Narrative: Expatriates with Agendas and America’s Dangerously Distorted Iran Debate—And A Challenge to Abbas Milani
When we published Going to Tehran, we expected that its critique of America’s prevailing Iran mythology would spark sharply negative reactions from individuals and constituencies whose identities are bound to this mythology. The sharpest so far came in mid-March, when The New Republic published Abbas Milani’s “The American Voices of the Islamist Regime in Iran: Two Former U.S. Officials Make the Case for Accommodation.”
The New Republic and Milani (among other affiliations, a TNR contributing editor) have had us in their sights for some time. With our book out, TNR and Milani are after us with renewed vigor. We submitted a response to Milani’s article, which The New Republic just published, see here. (TNR allowed Milani to write a response to our response, which one can also read by clicking on this link). We append our piece below.
As you will see, dealing with the issues we raise in our critique of Milani and his work is essential if the United States is ever to have any hope of having a remotely rational and informed debate about how to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. To this end, we hereby issue a challenge to Mr. Milani to debate us, publicly, on our differences over how to interpret the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and political history.
Here’s what we have in mind: a ninety-minute debate, held in front of a live audience and videotaped for wider distribution. The location at which the debate would take place as well as the designation of a host/moderator would be negotiated between Mr. Milani and us. Given that there are two of us and one of him, Mr. Milani could choose to have a partner join him in debating us; alternatively, if he preferred to go it alone, we would stipulate in advance that he would have as much time to speak as the two of us combined.
In terms of substance, the debate would be divided into three thirty-minute segments, each dealing with one of the following questions:
–Is the Islamic Republic the legitimate product of the Iranian Revolution?
–Is the Islamic Republic today a legitimate political order?
–Can and should the United States pursue better relations with the Islamic Republic as it is presently constituted?
In each 30-minutes segment, each side would speak for 10 minutes apiece. Then, each side would question the other for 5 minutes apiece.
We hope that Mr. Milani will take up our challenge. In the meantime, here is our article, as published in The New Republic.
Up For Debate: Do Insiders or Outsiders Have the Clearer View of Iran?
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  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.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett