We’ve got a new Iran expert, Roger Cohen of the New York Times, whose expertise stems from a short visit that brought him in touch with a few people, and, now famously, some Iranian Jews. He kicked off a firestorm of criticism for his claim that the Iranian Jews were well treated, worship feely, and did not fear the regime, although from time to time Jews were falsely accused of things. More broadly, he denounced those who hold a “mad mullahs” view of Iran, and was particularly exercised by claims that Iran is similar to Nazi Germany.
He has now responded to his critics and reiterated some of his earlier claims.
Let’s be clear: Iran’s Islamic Republic is no Third Reich redux. Nor is it a totalitarian state.
Munich allowed Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Iran has not waged an expansionary war in more than two centuries.
Totalitarian regimes require the complete subservience of the individual to the state and tolerate only one party to which all institutions are subordinated. Iran is an un-free society with a keen, intermittently brutal apparatus of repression, but it’s far from meeting these criteria. Significant margins of liberty, even democracy, exist. Anything but mad, the mullahs have proved malleable.
This sort of talk bespeaks several things, from an ignorance of totalitarianism, to the history of Nazi Germany, and a blindness to evil. The mullahs certainly require total subservience, and the ideology of the Islamic Republic is strikingly similar to that of the fascists in the 1930s. “Intermittently brutal”? You could have said the same thing about Hitler in the years before the war. He didn’t become Chancellor one day and start killing the Jews the next; he tried various ways of getting rid of the Jews, of which the Holocaust was the “final solution.” Before that, there was discrimination (Jews eliminated from certain professions), then ghettos, labor camps, and emigration. Only when the war was in full swing, and the rest of the world had refused to take in the Jews, did the extermination begin.
As for the regime’s attitude toward the Jews, we have two clear negative indicators: the relentless campaign of Holocaust denial by President Ahmadinejad, and the recent crackdown on critics, many of whom were accused of spying for Israel. I think the Iranian Jews are nuts to stay there, and I’m not at all sure they would be permitted to leave. It serves the interests of the regime to have 25,000 hostages on call. They love hostages.
Democracy, or is it “margins of liberty, even democracy” exist? That will certainly be news to any journalist who tries to write anything critical of the regime. “Journalists without frontiers” has declared Iran the greatest enemy of press freedom in the Middle East. And a few years ago a Canadian journalist who was exploring the evils of the regime was beaten to death in Tehran. And an American journalist has just been thrown into prison. But Cohen doesn’t comment on any of this. Indeed, he thinks young Iranians are much like young Americans, since they surf the net a lot.
…it’s an Internet-connected generation. Access to satellite television is widespread. The BBC’s new Farsi service is all the rage.
,,,a student opponent of the regime, told me, “The Internet is very important to us; in fact, it is of infinite importance.” Iranians are not cut off, like Cubans or North Koreans.
Not quite right. The Iranians are indeed cut off. The Iranian regime uses the same “internet filtering” software as China, and the anti-filtering software, which is produced here in America by Chinese opponents of that regime, is in wide use in Iran. Mr. Cohen should have a look at this phenomenon, which even has its humorous side: the web site (which is in Chinese) with the software (and a secure portal) is most used by Chinese people, but the Iranians are right behind them (the Saudis are third). I get a chuckle imagining those Persians trying to navigate a web site in Chinese.
Political blogging is a crime in Iran, and several popular bloggers are now in prison. You wouldn’t know that by reading Mr. Cohen. And as for his claim that “satellite television is widespread,” I suppose it all depends on what you mean by “widespread.” It certainly exists, but satellite dishes are frequently torn down, and the users punished. Mr. Cohen’s language is misleading; he clearly thinks it’s quite all right for Iranians to have their dishes.
In support of his claim that there is at least some “democracy” in the country, he writes “The June presidential election pitting the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against Mohammad Khatami (a former president who once spoke in a synagogue) will be a genuine contest as compared with the charades that pass for elections in many Arab states.”
As if there were only two candidates! There will be several; we don’t yet know what the full ballot will look like, but Mehdi Karrubi, a longtime staple in the mullahcracy, has already announced, and others will probably run as well. Will it be “a genuine contest”? If so, it would be a first. Iranian elections are routinely rigged, and the corruption of the process is so widely recognized that the abstention rate is astronomical. Nor does Mr. Cohen note that only those candidates approved by the regime are permitted to run. Some democracy!
He’s certainly right to say that the regime routinely makes a mess of its projects. It helps explain the mystery of Iran’s failure to develop an atomic bomb in more than two decades, when other countries have done it in less than one. Corruption plays a huge role. But then, we could have said the same thing about Mussolini’s Italy, which most scholars consider a totalitarian regime.
Then comes the closing paragraph, which gives away what Mr. Cohen is all about:
But the equating of Iran with terror today is simplistic. Hamas and Hezbollah have evolved into broad political movements widely seen as resisting an Israel over-ready to use crushing force. It is essential to think again about them, just as it is essential to toss out Iran caricatures.
This comes right after a passing condemnation of Iranian-supported terrorism in Argentina in the 1990s (tellingly, he doesn’t mention Hezbollah’s role in it). Mr. Cohen is apparently not persuaded that Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism (although virtually every expert is), nor is he willing to condemn Iran and its various proxies, most certainly including Hezbollah and Hamas, for the tens of thousands of innocent civilians they have murdered in Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza, Israel, Somalia, and Afghanistan, nor the thousands of Americans they have killed around the world. Instead, he whitewashes it by trotting out the conventional slur of Israel. In fact, it sounds very much as if Mr. Cohen thinks we should make nice to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Like many intellectuals who refuse to see evil when it’s right in front of their nose, Mr. Cohen hears what he wishes, and filters out the rest. Just in the last few days, the regime executed a member of a community of Sufi dervishes who had clashed with authorities. He was found guilty of blasphemy. Three others, condemned for the same crime, were sentenced to more than ten years in prison, where, according to the reliable Iranian Political Prisoners Association, they are being tortured.
It’s legitimate to debate what we should do about Iran, which has been officially at war with the United States for thirty years, but denying the nature of this theocratic fascist regime can only make the debate more sterile.
UPDATE: Many thanks to Ronnie Radosh, my old (sigh) classmate and friend, for his kind remarks on his Pajamas Blog. And you must, must, must read his review of Jamie Glazov’s new book here. Ronnie is a national treasure.
UPDATE 2: Here is a French report on how internet access is censored in the Middle East, including Iran, which is explicitly defined as “totalitarian.”