Going Back To The Green

Reuel Marc Gerecht at NYT:

IN 1985 — when no case officer could even dream of widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran like those that occurred a year ago this week — I first arrived on the Iran desk in the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Operations. One of my colleagues was an older man who had entered the agency in its early days, when liberal internationalists and hawkish socialists ran most of America’s covert-action programs.

Intellectually irrepressible, softhearted (for an operative) and firmly on the political left, my colleague did not recognize national boundaries when it came to promoting human rights. He could talk for hours about why the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, the author of “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” was the answer to Iran’s religious tyranny. He was nearly alone within the directorate in his enthusiasm and plans for doing something to help Iranians against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocracy.

As it turns out, many of the intellectual heavyweights who’ve driven Iran’s ever-growing pro-democracy Green Movement also love Popper and his defense of liberal democracy. The former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who is fascinated by (and a little fearful of) Western philosophy and the economic dynamism of liberal democracy, can’t stop writing about Popper. And the much more influential Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian philosopher of religion who may be the most important Muslim thinker since the 11th-century theologian al-Ghazali, also pays his respects to the Austrian in his efforts to create a faith that can thrive in a more open, democratic society.

As I consider the changes in Iran over the last year, the people who come quickly to mind are my covert-action-loving colleague, Karl Popper and the army of pro-democracy lay and clerical Iranian intellectuals who’ve been transforming their country’s culture and ethics. They are our guides to what the United States ought to be doing vis-à-vis Iran; they are also a reproach to how President Obama has so far conducted Iran policy.

Whereas the Reagan administration in the 1980s could do little to help Iranians (Ronald Reagan’s determined efforts to engage the clerical regime over the hostages in Lebanon certainly didn’t strengthen “moderates” in Tehran), Mr. Obama could do vastly more. By throwing in his lot with the freedom movement, he would surely increase the odds that we won’t have to live with a nuclear bomb controlled by virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic clerics. Democrats, once the champions of promoting pro-democracy movements, need to understand that the good that they can do for the people of Iran far exceeds the great harm that comes from doing nothing.

Yet for the United States to help, we need to first see clearly what’s been happening in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 and over the last year. In the 1980s, when Iran’s youth were enthralled by the charismatic Khomeini, it would have been difficult to imagine that in two decades the same Muslim society would engage in the most damning critique of dictatorship ever seen in the Middle East.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

Reuel Marc Gerecht, who knows Iran well, has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today about how President Obama should deal with the Iran’s green movement. He is no less critical than John McCain, but considerably more subtle–and I think his main proposal, of giving tech support to the Iranian people, making it easier for them to access the internet via satellite, is a good one…so long as it is done quietly, without McCainiac bleating.

That said, I do believe that Gerecht overstates the capacity of the Green Movement to succeed in toppling the current, odious regime. To win, the reformers will have to find an alliance with the quietist members of the religious community; the bazaaris, whose businesses are being hurt by Iran’s increasing commercial isolation (not just the sanctions, but the unilateral decision by an increasing number of international corporations not to do business with this regime); and some of the more moderate “principleist” conservatives, who will be favored candidates in the next election.

A wise Iranian once said to me, “The Shah’s problem was that he saw Iran as Persian, but not Muslim. Khomeini’s problem is that he saw Iran as Muslim, but not Persian. We need a government that is both Persian and Muslim.” The regime needs to be changed, but perhaps not the Iranian constitution–if the growing number of not-so-activist and radical clerics, the quietists, can play the same role in Iran that Ayatullah Sistani has played in Shi’ite Iraq. The elements of a politically sane solution exist in Iran…but these elements will have to be both clever and lucky to remove the Revolutionary Guard from power.

Max Boot at Commentary:

Against his points one will hear the familiar argument, made by some Green leaders themselves, that the U.S. government is incapable of running a truly covert program and that the taint of American support will undermine the opposition’s credibility.

Perhaps. But aren’t the mullahs already painting the opposition leaders as American stooges? They don’t need actual evidence to make their charges; concocted evidence and bizarre conspiracy theories will do. After years of such charges, I am guessing that most Iranians are inured to regime propaganda and probably wouldn’t credit it even if it were true.

In any case, aren’t we always hearing about President Obama’s stellar popularity around the world? Surely anointment by The One would not hurt the chances of success in Iran — which, opinion polls suggest, is actually one of the more pro-American countries in the region.

John Noonan at The Weekly Standard:

The idea here isn’t necessarily to create a violent, anti-government insurrection within the Iranian regime; rather, the hope is to fuel the fires of revolution by facilitating messaging and communications. Capsizing the Mullahs can be done peacefully, but it won’t work without significant assistance from the West. That means that democratic nations should provide the technical kit necessary to assist the more isolated Green cells throughout the country, which would make tangible gains in Iran’s rural areas — where the regime draws much of its political backing. As Gerecht notes, supporting dissidents along technical lines would be relatively cheap, effective, and wholly in sync with America’s tradition of bolstering human rights and aspiring democracies throughout the world.

Most importantly, President Obama must start behaving like the leader of the free world, and stand shoulder to shoulder with Iranian dissidents. That means publicly recognizing their struggle, the nobility of their objectives, and the moral corruption and bankruptcy of the vicious Iranian regime.

Andrew Sullivan:

One way to see if an argument is worth its muster is to ask whether it addresses the core points of the best rebuttal. Reuel Marc Gerecht’s op-ed completely fails this test today. The obvious reason that president Obama decided to keep his support for the Green Movement in Iran muted was … to help the Green Movement in Iran. His view – shared in large part by Mousavi and Karroubi – was that too strong a US public stand would backfire. It would allow the mullahs to play the Great Satan card more effectively, and marginalize the message of the Greens. Now, it’s possible to disagree with that and see Iran as more like the old Soviet Union than a Muslim society with deep – and thoroughly understandable – suspicions about US meddling. But if so, you should make that case. Frankly, I remain unpersuaded that we should treat Iran like Czechoslovakia. I have learned something from this past decade which is that history and culture matter, that rhetorical grandstanding is no substitute for diplomacy and strategy, and that neoconservative projections about the Middle East have been proven spectacularly misguided, ill-informed and counter-productive.

Let’s put it this way: Gerecht’s op-ed this morning does nothing to change my mind.

Daniel Larison:

All of the usual baseless assertions are there: Obama can “throw his lot” in with the Green movement (how?), this will increase the odds that a non-existent Iranian bomb won’t be controlled by the current batch of clerics (why?), and Obama can do “vastly more” than Reagan did (what?). It is very much like Stephens’ column in simply presuming that Obama had the ability to help the Green movement constructively and chose not to use that ability.

When the Bush administration basically stood by and watched as the Burmese junta crushed the peaceful protests in Rangoon three years ago, few people were daft enough to claim that Bush had failed to act aggressively enough on behalf of the “Saffron” revolution. Sane people recognized that there was not much that Bush or anyone else in the U.S. could do. Something worth remembering here is that sanctions imposed on Burma to punish the regime have simply suffocated the opposition and destroyed the middle class. Anyone who did attack Bush for failing to “throw his lot” in with Burmese protesters while also urging ever-stricter sanctions on the regime would now look quite ridiculous. Of course, the same ridiculous combination of rhetorical support for Iran’s opposition combined with a vindictive desire for “crippling sanctions” can be found in the writings of practically every Iran hawk.


Perhaps the most misleading part of Gerecht’s op-ed is the part that seemed at first to be almost a throwaway remark, but which he intended to be central to his argument. Gerecht wants us to side with the “friends of Karl Popper,” and he concludes that the Green movement is filled with “friends of Karl Popper” because some reform leaders and movement intellectuals are interested in Popper’s ideas. This is a quick sleight-of-hand on Gerecht’s part as he mentions how Khatami and Soroush have engaged with some of Popper’s ideas, and then transfers their interest in Popper to the entire movement, and this is supposed to lead us to believe that the entire movement is made up of “friends of Karl Popper.” Leaving aside how shaky a lot of Popper’s own analysis in The Open Society and Its Enemies was, I doubt that the simplistic opposition between the “open society” and totalitarianism that made sense to Popper in the mid-twentieth century will be all that useful and appropriate for Iran’s opposition, many of whose leaders still value the legacy of Khomeini.

For their part, the Iranian “friends of Karl Popper” should be very wary of the heirs of the people that Popper called the historicists, who confidently proclaim that their ideology is going to prevail and that history is on their side. The historicists that Popper was referring to believed that they had gleaned the fundamental principles of history and therefore understood how to implement these principles to create an imagined just society. Perversely, many of the latter-day Western enthusiasts of the “open society” and supposed admirers of Karl Popper regularly indulge in the historicist error that Popper deeply loathed.


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