Today, see here, the New York Times published our response to Laura Secor’s review of our book, Going to Tehran, which the Times ran earlier this month. We append the text of our letter to the editor below. (Ms, Secor’s reply is also available by clicking on the link above.)
To the Editor:
To encourage constructive debate, we will address two of the larger issues raised in—and by—Laura Secor’s review of our book Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms With the Islamic Republic of Iran (March 3).
Secor’s journalistic record identifies her as someone with a preference for remaking the Middle East along Western liberal lines. But this preference can all too readily end in the robust application of American military power, as we saw in the case of the Iraq war. Indeed, Secor arguably contributed to that war by publishing an article that provided a platform for Kanan Makiya, the leading intellectual voice in the United States for Ahmad Chalabi’s notorious Iraqi National Congress, to make his case that American military action would lead to secular liberal democracy in Iraq.
More important, she seems to have learned nothing from the colossal damage that the Iraq war has done to America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally. Instead, she has shifted her prism toward Iran—where, she holds, no legitimate politics can take place until the end of Islamist governance. It is, of course, her right to hold that view. But given her appallingly bad judgment regarding Iraq, assigning her the task of reviewing a book like ours, which challenges American elites’ “conventional wisdom” about the Islamic Republic so that the kinds of mistakes made regarding Iraq would not be repeated regarding Iran, only guarantees that the book will not be treated seriously.
Second, Secor clearly does not like our argument that, for most Iranians living inside their country, the Islamic Republic is a legitimate if flawed political order, with greater pluralism and vastly more progressive outcomes on a host of economic and social indicators than the shah’s secular, pro-Western regime. Yet she offers no objective evidence that the argument is mistaken. She dismisses our reliance on “opinion polls taken under repressive conditions.” But those polls—14 methodologically sound studies, conducted by Western polling groups as well as by University of Tehran researchers—provide some of the best and most objective evidence of what Iranians actually think.
Many responses in these polls belie Secor’s assertion of a repressed population — including sharp criticisms of the Interior Ministry and no increase in the percentage of respondents saying, after Iran’s 2009 presidential election, that they supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Before and after the election, the polls consistently showed that Ahmadinejad’s victory, with just over 60 percent of the vote—which is what the official results say he got—was eminently plausible.) More generally, the results are remarkably consistent—meaning that, if respondents were lying, they did so in the same percentages on the same issues across 14 different surveys conducted at different times. That has never happened in the history of polling, and is a powerful indicator of these polls’ internal validity.
The polls point to a conclusion Secor cannot face: The Green movement did not lose its struggle with Iran’s established order because of brutal repression; the movement lost because, even at its height, it did not represent anything close to a majority of Iranians. In 1978-79, when Iranians took to the streets against the shah and were gunned down by the thousands, protests grew larger. (Likewise, when Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square in 2011 and were killed by the hundreds, demonstrations got bigger.) In Iran, even opposition sources admit that under 100 people died in clashes with security forces following the 2009 election—and yet the Greens retreated, because the constituency for overturning the Islamic Republic was too small to support their bid for power, whether at the ballot box or on the streets.
Americans face a stark choice regarding Iran. We can come to terms with the Islamic Republic, accepting it as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests. Alternatively, Washington can continue on its present course—but that ultimately means going to war. If, in the present climate, with Middle Eastern publics becoming more mobilized and politically relevant, the United States launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, the resulting damage to America’s strategic position will make that done by the Iraq war look almost trivial by comparison. Perhaps that’s O.K. with Secor. But your readers deserved a fairer treatment of the analyses and arguments raised in our book.
HILLARY MANN LEVERETT