The State of the Opposition is Strong

A response to the most infuriating op-ed of the new year


The State of the Opposition is Strong
by Abbas Milani

A couple of days after June’s stolen election in Iran, Flynt Leverett and I were both guests on “The Charlie Rose Show.” Mr. Leverett was waxing eloquent about how Ahmadinejad could have actually won the election. His supposed evidence was a May poll, conducted by phone from Turkey, before the presidential campaign had even begun. Apparently he did not read the entire report of the poll, merely a summary, published in a Washington Post editorial. Much of the full report contradicted his conclusions. Moreover, anyone who believes that Iranians today will reveal their real electoral preferences to a pollster calling from Turkey probably responds to emails from Nigerian princes.

In Wednesday’s New York Times, the Leveretts—Flynt and his wife Hillary Mann—were at it again. As the title of the piece suggests, they take on the mantle of prophets and predict: “Another Iranian Revolution? Not Likely.” They claim that they know that “much of Iranian society was upset by protesters using a sacred day to make a political statement.” They seem to have forgotten that the 1979 revolution was made precisely by using sacred days for political ends. They claim to know that the opposition in Iran “do[es] not represent anything close to a majority.” Yet even if we take the regime’s own figures, 14 million people voted for the opposition. They dismiss this opposition as articulating nothing but “inchoate discontent.”

Crucially, they also suggest that the Obama administration should forget about the Green Movement and conduct business with the clerical regime as usual—the same regime that just declared that anyone who participates in a peaceful demonstration is an “enemy of God,” and will be dealt with accordingly, i.e. killed. In fact, pro-regime members of the parliament think that executing an “enemy of God” within ten days is too long to wait; they are rushing through a new law that mandates execution within five. This is hardly the behavior of a regime secure on its perch of power. To conduct “business as usual” with such a frightened and brutal government is no less egregious than overlooking the infamy of apartheid and continuing to do business with the South African regime.

To demonstrate the alleged weakness of the opposition, as opposed to the regime’s vigor, the Leveretts rely on images that they have gleaned from regime websites. Based on these highly partisan sources, they claim that the recent pro-regime demonstration was not only larger than recent opposition demonstrations, but also the largest since 1989. On so many levels this appears to be false. The regime brought out all government employees and school children, all Basij and IRGC families, and all who could be bused in from around the country. But instead of congregating in Azadi Square, where they have traditionally organized mass rallies to intimidate the opposition and the world, this time they chose a much smaller square in the middle of Tehran. There are satellite pictures of the regime demonstration having far, far fewer people there than at recent opposition rallies, which numbered in the millions. Even if the Leveretts' numbers are accurate, comparisons between these demonstrations are absurd. Opposition demonstrations take place under the threat of beatings, imprisonment, and death—threats that are constantly broadcast on government-controlled media. One is tempted to adapt a Jack Nicholson's quote from Prizzi’s Honor: “If they are so fucking popular, why are they so fucking frightened?”

The Leveretts play as fast and loose with the “facts” of the past as they do with those of today. Their portrayal of Khomeini as leader of the 1979 revolution is a good example. They claim that, in 1979, everyone knew where Khomeini stood, since he had written out his ideas before. But hundreds of documents from the U.S. and British government archives, as well as thousands of pages of scholarly writing, show that in fact Khomeini donned a democratic façade in 1978, which was far different from anything he had written in the past or would do in future.

In Paris, he promised democracy; in his writings, he advocated Velayat-e-Fagih, or the absolute rule of the jurist. In Paris, he promised that neither he nor any member of the clergy would have anything to do with power. Today, only the clergy, their relatives, and allies can assume any position of power. In Paris, he promised women would be free, and not forced to follow any new strictures; in practice, he not only forced the veil on all women, but also changed marriage laws so that a nine-year-old girl could be sent off to her “husband.” Today, after much struggle by the women’s movement, the marriage age for girls is 14. What is statutory rape here in America is the law of the land in Iran. In other words, Khomeini reneged on virtually every deal he made with the people. And that is why the regime he created has not seen a day’s peace for 30 years.

The Leveretts refer to “half-hearted efforts” by the Obama administration to establish ties with Iran. But the president of the United States has reportedly written two unsolicited and still unanswered letters to Khamenei; he has gone out of his way not to offer full support to the regime’s opponents; he has asked Congress to delay the passage of a bill authorizing new sanctions on the regime. All of this only to be rebuffed openly by Khamenei and ridiculed by his cohorts. In the meantime, the regime has continued its work on the nuclear program, increased its involvement in Yemen by supporting the Shia insurgency that weakens the central government and creates a vacuum for Al Qaeda, and increased its support to Afghan rebels through its proxies. For years, regime apologists in America have suggested that U.S. efforts to negotiate with Iran are half-hearted, or that all the clerics in Iran want is some respect. Events of the last seven months show the problem is not in Washington, but in Tehran, and with the nature of the regime. Khamenei knows that anti-Americanism is his raison d’etre.

After dozens of people have been executed and dozens more tortured to death, after thousands have been arrested by the regime and hundreds more exiled, and after millions have stepped into the street to shout their opposition to the regime, the Leveretts write of those who “talk so confidently about an ‘opposition,’” putting “opposition” in sardonic quotation marks. They then go on to ask, “What does this opposition want … who leads it … and through what process will this opposition displace the government in Tehran?”

Well, only a few days ago, Mousavi, the clear leader of the opposition, wrote a five-point proposal for ending the impasse, and no credible voice in the opposition has quarreled with his proposed approach. Thousands of students organized in virtual cells and in a non-hierarchical fashion constitute the vanguard of the movement. Mousavi and the opposition ask for the rule of law, for ending the police state, and for the legislature to do its job of holding Ahmadinejad accountable. The regime’s only response, aside from hurling insults and threats, has been to arrest more and more opposition figures and threaten demonstrators with execution.

As recently declassified documents from the British and American archives clearly indicate, even as late as December 1978, neither government knew whether the revolution would bring about a democratic government, a military coup, or even a communist take over. All they knew was that the status quo was untenable, so they began to distance themselves from the Shah and establish contacts with the opposition. Today, the status quo is equally untenable, but to demand an exact blueprint from the Iranian opposition is not only to demand the impossible, but to fall into the fallacy of historicism—the belief that History has iron laws that are predictable. When the U.S. supported dissidents in Russia, was there a blueprint? Is there one for Darfur? Policy is invariably made based not on an exact blueprint of the future but on a prudent assessment of ascending and descending forces in a situation, and hopefully, on moral values. The U.S. can either stand with the people of Iran, and support their quest for democracy—a democracy, incidentally, that offers the only solution to the nuclear problem as well—or it can side with those who defend the moribund regime. In the past, every time the United States has listened to the Leveretts of the day, it has reaped nothing but the wrath of the people and a loss of influence. The same would happen this time.

Originally published in The New Republic.

Abbas Milani is a contributing editor of
The New Republic and the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, where he is the co-director of the Iran Democracy Project. His latest book is Eminent Persians: The Men and Women who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979.


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A Response to the Leveretts

by vildemose on

A Response to the Leveretts by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles 09 Jan 2010 17:2742 Comments

A Response to Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Flynt Leverett directs the New America Foundation's Iran Initiative and is a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. Hillary Mann Leverett heads Strategic Energy and Global Analysis, a political risk consultancy. Together, they publish the Web site "The Race for Iran." Having spent years in the intelligence community, they are both considered Iran experts.

[ comment ] On January 5, 2010, Flynt Leverett and his wife Hillary Mann Leverett wrote a New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Another Iranian Revolution? Not likely."

In this opinion piece, the authors attempt to prove that the opposition Green Movement in Iran is weak, disorganized, leaderless, and even lacks a sense of what it wants. They also claim no clear process exists for the Green Movement to achieve a regime change.

This is not the first time that the Leveretts have bought into the hardliners' propaganda. Immediately following the rigged June 12 presidential election, Flynt Leverett appeared on PBS with Charlie Rose and opined that Ahmadinejad had won fair and square. The couple then asserted the same in an article published by Politico and entitled, "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it."




The state of the opposition is strong, and growing

by Hovakhshatare on

Dr. Milani, has well articulated all the flaws of IRR but also the importance of the West not screwing up again, as they will have to face the consequences at their own peril. This is a solid response to Leverett  and rest of appeasement policy pushers that think they can somehow benefit from it.


Awe, Mr. Milani must be really hurt!!

by Jaleho on

to see that the Leverett's excellent article is once more on the target, they are being listened to by relevant people, and he is....... well, no one with any power in policy making would listen to Milani's irrelevant stale repetition of CNN propaganda and his possible outcomes which never comes true!

No wonder Mr. Milani is upset by Leverett's being "prophetic" in their predictions and assessments, and no wonder he makes fun of "fallacy of historicism"! He probably laments why he's not being listened to and Leveretts are. Mr. Milani got this point right:

Although no one can provide a blueprint of future exactly, but the policy makers do know that for a "prudent assessment of ascending and descending forces in a situation," they better listen to voices who have provided correct analysis and something of value consistently....and that includes the Leveretts and excludes Mr. Milani who has not been able to offer anything in the past few years except for his wishful thinking!


My position is clear:

by vildemose on

My position is clear: Velayate Faqih stays, Khamenie goes, a new body or person replaces him with far looser

Why do you think Iranians need a custodian??


re: vildemose... what other sites, what talking memos

by mannya2001 on

I am in no position of power or recieving talking points or anything like that..

I have consistently stated that the Pesidential office in Iran is no more than decor.  Therefore, who ultimately won that position really makes no difference to me.

I hate that AN won.  BUt at the same time I hate people like Khatami even more.  Khatami was spineless and is like a moosh.

I have consistently stated that I believe Khamenie is no longer fit to rule, due to his poor decision making: starting from backing Presidential results before an investigations were done. 

Also, the fact that people open call for his ouster means that Khamenie will only hurt his position even more.

I don't believe in all those demands by the opposition because they are avoiding the obvious- removal of KHAMENIE.

My position is clear: Velayate Faqih stays, Khamenie goes, a new body or person replaces him with far looser control and you will see that everything else will fall very nicely into place.


Interesting reading,

by Rea on

particularly the bit on Khomeini.

Have often wondered about help he'd been given by the West in his taking over power in Iran.  Now understand a litle bit more.:)

Anonymous Observer

That's right "Bavafa"

by Anonymous Observer on

There are many "wolves" around Iran who want to contaminate the pure movement in Iran.  We shouldn't pay attention to any of them.  The only reliable sources are those from inside Iran, like "Farsnews".  And yes, the IRR is not a "wolf" at all.  It's a lovy dovy comfy teddy bear that loves all Iranians...except, of course, those that it rapes and runs over with trucks...but never mind that...peope remember what "Mehrdad" says...just be scared, be very scared...otherwise the "Zionist" are going to take over Iran, and make it like Palestine...they will build settlements in Rasht...that's right...everything is a "Zionist" and "AIPAC" conspiracy...everything...all the demonstrations.. ..everything...


Eliass sajjad? Who is

by vildemose on

Eliass sajjad? Who is he??

The IRI is waiting for the US to do something dumb as attacking it so they can decimate the green movement. Are you saying that Milani and Sajadpour don't want democracy in Iran and are perfectly happy with the Islamic Republic's regin forever??


As Elias Sajjad has said

by Bavafa on

As Elias Sajjad has said in her blog here, there are many wolves around that would like to discredit this movement. The enemies of this revolution are not just IRI, be aware of the enemies outside of Iran as well.  Neocons/AIPAC are working hard to derail this revolution by the people.  They know they can contorl one or two clown in charge, but not the whole nation.




   Hillary Mann

by vildemose on


 Hillary Mann Leverett: From Iran Critic to Iran Apologist




manny2001: I've seen you

by vildemose on

manny2001: I've seen you post the same trash on all other sites. Don't you get tired of cutting and pasting the same talking points issued by the Islamic Rebpulic Minstry of Intelligence. Do you really think Iranians or the International community are blind and don't see the regime for what they are??

If you really believe your own nonsense then you are in major denial for some personal reason...

What would happen to you and your family if the Islamic Republic's dismantled by the people?? What are the personal stakes for you?? Are you afraid of losing your inside power and influence?


A. Milani wants to be included with leaders of Green so badly

by mannya2001 on

Absolutely, non sense.  Why is conducting a poll from Turkey not likely to give you accurate results.

If 4 candidates are legitemetely allowed and screened and if people are allowed to get in the streets and campaign for their candidates, why should they be scared of saying what they feel over the phone.

When Iranians in th emiddle of daylight get to tell their feelings and infront of the camera, there is no need to think they would be too scared to tell the truth to a pollester.


hamsade ghadimi

thanks mr. milani ...

by hamsade ghadimi on

for your quick and powerful response to the leveretts.  well said.