In its February-March 2013 issue, Survival (the journal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies) published a “review” of our book, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, by Ray Takeyh. Because of subscription limitation, we cannot post the review in its entirety. In February, however, we posted some excerpts—as well as a scintillating essay by Nima Shirazi responding to Takeyh. Now, Survival has published our response to Takeyh in its April-May issue. We append it below:
Objectivity and the Iran Debate
After reading Ray Takeyh’s review of our Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran (Survival, February-March 2013, pp. 178-181), we are compelled to note that it is unethical for a reviewer (and his publisher) not to acknowledge circumstances which raise questions about the reviewer’s objectivity in assessing a particular book. Such might be the case if a book under review severely criticized the reviewer’s own work.
One of our major themes in Going to Tehran is that America’s Iran debate is dominated by foreign policy pundits and Iran “experts” with, in most cases, no direct connection to on-the-ground reality inside Iran; many of these “experts” are Iranian expatriates or Iranian-Americans whose families fled the Iranian Revolution and want to see the Islamic Republic fail. We lay out, in thoroughly referenced detail, the misleading analyses of Iranian politics and foreign policy that such people have produced. These include analyses by Takeyh himself—something which Takeyh never mentions, much less addresses, as he smears us as “apologists” for “the mullahs” in Tehran.
In our book, we document the long record of howlingly wrong assessments and projections that Takeyh has produced—from his data- and fact-free assertions that Iran’s 2009 presidential election was fraudulent to his insistence that the Islamic Republic is too dependent on anti-Americanism to improve relations with Washington (an insistence that ignores a 25-year accumulation of statements from the highest-level Iranian authorities and an equally long and documented record of efforts by Iranian leaders to respond positively to American requests for cooperation and to proffer their own overtures). Put more bluntly, Going to Tehran makes a substantial case that Takeyh is professionally incompetent; given this, how could anyone consider him an objective reviewer of our book?
If Survival wants to stage a debate between the Leveretts and Takeyh, this could, in principle, be structured in an intellectually responsible fashion. But it is intellectually irresponsible—indeed, deeply deceptive—that, in an ostensibly objective review of our book, neither Takeyh nor Survival’s editors informed readers of critical facts that would almost certainly affect those readers’ assessments of Takeyh’s objectivity. (For Takeyh then to accuse us of “moral confusion” is especially ironic.)
Besides critiquing the analytic record of a cadre of Western Iran “experts” disproportionately populated by expatriates hostile to the Islamic Republic, Going to Tehran holds that, until Americans stop listening to such people, Washington will continue pursuing dangerously dysfunctional policies toward Iran and losing ground in the Middle East. For decades—from the Bay of Pigs to the even more strategically counter-productive invasion of Iraq—American elites have embraced expatriate native authenticators willing to provide intellectual validation for regime change campaigns (declared and undeclared) against governments that challenge U.S. foreign policy preferences.
In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, America’s Iraq debate was dominated by Iraqi and other Arab expatriate activists and commentators—from defectors with code names like Curveball and political entrepreneurs like Ahmad Chalabi to seemingly more respectable “public intellectuals” like Kanan Makiya and Fouad Ajami. American elites saw these expatriates as lending an indigenous authenticity to the case for coercive regime change in Iraq. Those who dared to challenge that case were smeared as “apologists” for an evil dictator. But the assessments offered by these expatriates—about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the character of post-Saddam Iraqi politics, and the impact of Saddam’s overthrow on the regional balance of power and regional attitudes about the United States—were profoundly wrong. As a result, the United States is in a much weaker position in the Middle East.
One reason we wrote Going to Tehran was our belief that, if Washington launches another illegal war in the Middle East, to disarm yet another country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, the “blowback” to America’s strategic standing will make the damage done by the Iraq war look almost trivial in comparison. If we once again allow decision-making regarding another critical state, about which Western leaders know next to nothing, to be shaped by agenda-driven analyses like that produced by Takeyh and others whose work we critique, disaster will be the result.
Given all that is at stake, Survival owes its readers open intellectually honest discussion of Iran-related issues. Takeyh’s review of our book abjectly fails to meet that standard.
Hillary Mann Leverett
We should note that, in the same issue of Survival in which our letter is published, Takeyh offers a two-sentence reply to it: “I stand by every word of my review. Going to Tehran is a morally deformed book.”
The first responsibility of a political analyst—morally as well as intellectually—is to get the analysis right. What is “morally deformed” is to continue getting analyses of Iran’s foreign policy and internal politics wrong—episode after episode, year after year, manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis—because of one’s personal sense that Iran is supposed to be a secular liberal state (regardless of what the Iranian people want) and/or that the United States should be able to act as a hegemonic power in the Middle East. On that count, Takeyh and too many other Iran “experts” in the United States have much for which to answer.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett