Why It’s Naive For The Leveretts To Discount the Green Movement In Iran

iran-car-on-fire-protestsFlynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett know Iran very well, but knowing a place well does not mean they have any clue how things will end up in Iran. Their op-ed yesterday in the New York Times argues that the size and impact of the Green Movement is vastly overstated and will have little impact on the direction of the Iran.

A few problems with the Leveretts’ attempts to discredit the influence of the Green Movement:

— First of all, by pointing to the number of protesters on Dec. 27 (which they say may have been as few as as few as two to four thousand), they are taking highly conservative assessments at face value. A look at the videos tells a different story, and attacking 20 armed storm troopers doesn’t just happen with a couple thousand people.

— The Leveretts also claim that the pro-regime protests were larger, therefore demonstrating that the regime is much more popular than the Green Movement. Not only does this overlook the fact that the regime encouraged people to attend their protest, but ignores the fact that it takes considerably more courage to attend a protest in which you could actually die or get imprisoned. Regardless, pitting regime-sanctioned photos designed to demonstrate the size of the crowd, against amateur photos taken under duress is not a fair comparison.

The key point here, however, is that for a pro-democracy movement to succeed it does not have to have near unanimous public support, as the Leveretts suggest.

The Leveretts miss similarities between the Green Movement and other past successful pro-democracy movements around the world, instead attempting both in their op-ed and in response to criticism, to discount the Green Movement by showing all the ways in which it is not the same as the 1979 revolution. But saying something isn’t exactly like something else is not really saying anything. Of course no two movements are the same. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan wrote in their textbook on democratic transitions that there is no set model for democratic transitions (p. 89): “It is well to remember that even the easiest and most successful transition was lived as a precarious process constantly requiring innovative political action.” At the very least this movement has the innovative political action part down.

By trying so hard to discount the movement, come across as politically naive. They write:

Beyond expressing inchoate discontent, what does the current “opposition” want? …Some protesters seem to want expanded personal freedoms and interaction with the rest of the world, but have no comprehensive agenda.

Broad mass-participatory protests movements rarely have a comprehensive agenda. In fact, mass protest movements usually are reactionary in nature. Despite this it seems that the movement is not as inchoate as they claim, as Robin Wright reports in the LA Times the movement now seems to have a manifesto.

Of course, the Leveretts could very well be right about the direction of the movement. The Green Movement may peter out or it may get squashed. But the supreme confidence in which they make this point and their dismissal of what is taking place, denies the obvious dramatic events that have taken place, the remarkable durability of the movement despite months of oppression, and the increasing signs of divisions within the regime itself. It also puts them in opposition to what seems to be the consensus among Iran experts – almost all of whom have struck a cautious tone, saying that what is happening in Iran is dramatic and unprecedented and is a real challenge to the regime, but at the same time noting they have no idea how things will end up.

The Leveretts are correct in saying that US policy toward Iran should be premised on engagement and that the Administration should not bank on the movement bringing down the regime and solving all its problems. However, it would also be a mistake for the Administration to ignore the movement’s existence as the Leveretts are suggesting. Despite their claims, this movement is real. Whether it succeeds or not is another question.