Vakili: Real talks with Iran

Last week, Hillary Mann Leverett arranged a private meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for students in her graduate seminar “U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy.” According to News articles about the event, Leverett believes that Ahmadinejad won the 2009 Iranian elections fairly and advocates an approach to U.S.-Iranian relations through a policy of engagement rather than pressure. As an Iranian American who has had family members and friends unjustly executed, tortured and imprisoned in Iran, this was extraordinarily distressing.

There seemed to be an agenda for the class: portraying the mullahs running Iran as legitimate, respectable government leaders that represent the Iranian people. Leverett states that the meeting the students had with Ahmadinejad showed that “he was probably not the stereotype of a crazy irrational figure … He has a strategy for Iran.”

But the only “strategy for Iran” Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other mullahs have is continuing martial law, executing and torturing the Iranian people, funding and supplying Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents, and continuing controversial rhetoric.

To sugarcoat Ahmadinejad during an interview with him is despicable because it completely misrepresents who this sick man is and it gives into his façade. This is a man who told the world that the Iranian regime had no nuclear ambitions while covertly constructing nuclear reactors. This is a man who denies that stoning or any unjust executions exists in Iran. This is man who claims Iran has the best and fairest democracy in the world and that the United States government wished it could emulate it. This is a man, who, according to Der Spiegel, personally executed 1,000 Iranians when he was in the Revolutionary Guard, the same Revolutionary Guard that still imprisons dissidents, enforces martial law and controls 75 percent of all Iranian business affairs.

So to portray Ahmadinejad on a personal level and disregard his background is to wipe the blood off his hands.

I am not against a group of Yalies meeting with the Iranian President, but it should be sincere and unstaged. Tragically, the meeting that occurred last Thursday was anything but. Instead of talking to Ahmadinejad about inane topics, these students should have gone to him with documents, photos, videos or any other piece of the bountiful evidence of the human rights violations committed in Iran and demand that he explain himself. This act of appeasement is unfortunately only one of many — there have been few interviews by the media in which members of the Iranian Regime have been confronted with evidence and tough question. Of course, it should be recognized that Ahmadinejad probably would not allow such an interview, but his silence would itself make a statement.

Each year, when an Iranian President comes to the United Nations and Yalies meet him (this is not the first time such an interview has taken place), there are thousands outside the U.N. protesting the Iranian regime. Since early childhood, I have attended these protests with my family and have met many courageous people, as each year my family hosts those who have come from all over the world to voice their beliefs.

I have heard their stories. Two years ago, for instance, we hosted a couple that used to live in Iran with their two sons and two daughters. The father was a prominent filmmaker, who was making a controversial film when the government told him to stop. He refused. Shortly thereafter, his son, a student at the University of Tehran went missing. When the father returned to his studio the next morning, he found his son hanging from the ceiling. Every media outlet reported that his son committed suicide. Outraged, the filmmaker’s other son, became vocal; he too was arrested and executed. Ultimately, the family fled.

Behind every oppressed voice, there is a story that the international community needs to hear. To represent the Iranian regime in a positive light or to make statements like “Ahmadinejad won. Get over it,” as Leverett did in an opinion piece last year is to insult the Iranian people who have courageously stood up for freedom in the face of oppression. The regime is breaking, and to rejuvenate it as was done during the ’90s is to invigorate an oppression of 72 million Iranian people.

The rhetoric Leverett used is neither new nor surprising. In fact, it is remarkably similar to the propaganda of many Iranian lobbyists and media outlets.

Therefore, my plea to Leverett and to others is to speak to the Iranian families who have been victims of the oppressive regime, learn their backgrounds, and understand the circumstances that have driven them to fight for freedom at the cost of their lives.

I fundamentally believe that her class should continue to be taught so that Yalies can decide the truth for themselves. As someone who has been burdened by his Iranian heritage and been so exposed politically from a young age, I have witnessed how multifaceted the Iranian situation can be. To obtain any remote understanding of it, it is important to listen to every possible perspective of the situation. Who knows, maybe I’ll take Professor Leverett’s class one day.


  • vitalism

    Thanks for opening my eyes to the authoritarian regime that operates in Iran!

  • justayalemom

    Excellent article!! Thank you.

  • yalie13

    Check out [Hillary Clinton’s speech][1] she gave today (sept 29) about Iran. The United States has finally imposed sanctions on Iran for Human Rights abuses!

    [1]: “CNN Report September 29, 2010”

  • commonsenseforeignpolicy

    Ohhhh, the whole article I was under the impression you were a student in this class and I kept thinking that Ms. Leverett must be a far better scholar than she is professor. I am glad this isn’t the case.

    Let me begin by saying that this was a touching piece, and I am sorry for all the loved ones you’ve lost under the despicable rule of the regime. The amount of suffering and loss of human life Iran and other modern revolutionary regimes cause cannot be described. I am happy to hear that you and some your loved ones (couldn’t ascertain whether you were born here or in Iran) were able to escape Iran and come to America. I don’t doubt that you and your family have a greater appreciation for this country than many of your fellow Americans whose families have been here for a few generations can.

    With that being said, your article, was fundamentally flawed. First, you do not seem to understand the concepts of strategy and rationality, which led you to criticize Professor Leverett because you didn’t understand her points. A strategy is an intellectual attempt to connect desired ends with available means. In which ways can I use my available resources to achieve my desire objectives. Saying that a person is rational just means, broadly speaking, just means that they use the avaliable options to weigh the available options (i.e. cost-benefits/risk-success likilhood) they have for achieving a goal and choose the one that is likely to be most favorable (some would say optimal). Thus, the Iranian regime’s (to the point it can be treated as monolithic) fundamental objective is maintaining the survival of their regime as it currently exists. Therefore, they must use their avaliable resources to protect agaisnt both internal revolts and external attacks that would place its regime in jeporady. Beyond their survival, they are seeking to increase their influence across the regime, ideally achieving regional hegemony, although this is both unlikely and driven in part by security concerns.

  • commonsenseforeignpolicy

    In this light the regime’s actions, including the ones that you recount, do indicate that they are acting rationale and strategically. In fact, I think its accurate to say (as Ms. Leverett does) that they are very good strategic thinkers, a point constantly made by past US officials including Zbig and Scowcroft. Because their regime is devoid of any inherent legitimacy, they have continuously mishandled the economy leaving them in an economic crisis, and rule over a population that has demonstrated it can be revolutionary on a mass number, using repression and rhetoric which outsources the problems to covert actions taken by Israel and the US is very consistent with their survival goal (they are also aided by many of our countries and other Western leaders statements that fit into the narrative they created). In fact, the Shah’s unwillingness to commit to a repression strategy, he’d alternate between repression and conciliation, is almost always listed as a driving factor from his inability to put down the unrest that eventually led to his regime being ousted. Unlike the Shah who would use widespread but inconsistent repression, what you say indicates that the Islamic Regime is using very targeted but psychologically effective brutality. This is repulsive, but it is still a rational strategy for staying in power.

    The same goes for the foreign policies you have mentioned. Their funding and support of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraqi terrorists extends their influence across the regime; i.e. they have influence in the Levant and their strong stance on the Palinsteine issue gives the regime more support among the Arab populations, thus constraining the Arab governments from fully reacting to what they see as the Shi’a threat. Their support of terrorist groups across the region is also part of a three pronged deterrent strategy, that also includes missiles and asymetrical naval forces they use to threaten to cut off the Strait of Hormuz or other shipping lanes, the Arab leaders ability to makes it far more costly , along with the regime’s missile acquistion and which they use to threaten oil lanes with. Thus, this is a very cheap way to try and convince US and Israel leaders that attacking them would be too costly. All together this is both very cheap and not technologically demanding way to achieve their foreign policy objectives. Their fiancial limitations and inability to replace and restore all the American made weapons they inherited from the Shah that were damaged during their War with Iraq (and US naval forces) during the 1980’s would not allow them to achieve these same goals through conventional means.

  • commonsenseforeignpolicy

    Also, by supporting terrorists groups in Iraq they both hope to get influence over an important neighbor (have long sought this far before Islamic regime) and keep the US bogged down in Iraq, twhich makes it less likely the US will have the resources and public support for a war with them. I think their behavior in Afghanistan, i.e. support for elements of the Taliban insurgency, clearly demonstrates that they are fixated on the fear that we are going to attack them. The Taliban, among other threats their rule posed to Iran, made it explicitly clear from their origin (see Coll Ghost Wars for a discussion of this) that they had every intention of attacking Iran once it had defeated the Northern Alliance and conquered the rest of Afghanistan. In 1998, after conquering land north of Kabul, the Taliban (with members of Pakistani ISI) actually went into the Iranian embassy and murdered 11 Iranian diplomats. Iran came extremely close to causing invadingAfghanistan before a UN brokered peace was reached. That they are now supporting this group’s return probably means that 1) they think they can hedge against that later and 2) they view the US as a far greater threat.

    I am not saying I agree with everything Ms. Leverett argues, for instance I don’t think the Iranian regime can accept the domestic costs of reaching an agreement with the US unless they could credibly sell it as them outsmarting us. At the same time, as an undergraduate at a state school in New York, let me tell you that you are very luckily to have the oppourtnity to take a course with a scholar of Ms. Leverett’s caliber. Thus, while I don’t think she’d mind a good ole debate, you should either do your homework first so you understand her points first; or just start just throwing insults at her on a blog, making sure to avoid the substance of her argument, and then apply for a job at the Hertiage Foundation or AEI.

  • Sharif

    Firstly, you’re right about that fact that calling Ahmadinejad irrational would not be completely appropriate. He, or more appropriately the group of mullahs running Iran, are conniving, intelligent, vile bastards. Actually, to call Ahmadinejad a crazy, irrational person is to give him the benefit of the doubt that the sick things he does is because he has a mental deficiency and not because he has justified his own selfish desire for power at the cost of the Iranian people’s oppression, torture, execution, and imprisonment. I mentioned this in my original version of my article, but it was cut out because of space.

    Sure Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and the rest of the mullahs have a strategy for Iran, but Stalin had a strategy for the Soviet Union. Hitler had a strategy for Nazi Germany. Kim Jong-il has a strategy for North Korea. Mussolini had a strategy for fascist Italy. These strategies are at the basics the same, have similar trends, and lead to the same result. When you oppress a nation of people, they ultimately rise up, execute you, and demonize you no matter how dramatically you try to control them with propaganda and force.

    The more the regime in Iran oppresses the Iranian people, the angrier they get. The angrier the Iranian people get, the more the regime needs to escalate brute force to control uprisings, thereby creating even more opposition. Right now, we’re seeing one of the last steps of this tragic oppressive cyle: martial law. The regime is at its breaking point. It is deathly afraid of the people, so it has had no choice but to imprison them. But unless the government can completely control every aspect of Iranian life in a North Korean type of way, there will be another revolution. You have to remember, the Iranian people read the New York Times. They are extraordinarily literate and technologically connected with the world (despite the efforts of the government to prevent that) .

    Now, I can’t tell whether you’re actually advocating oppressive regimes as strategic, but to engage and strengthen an oppressive regime like Iran, especially after the Iranian people so courageously have stood up for freedom in the face of oppression (something that has really rarely been accomplished in Middle Eastern states), is absolutely disgusting. It certainly be as foolish as going to war with Iran.

    The main point is, the Iranian regime’s actions domestically and abroad and are strategic for the purely selfish interests of the vile regime, but they are by no means strategic for the Iranian people or the people in the region who have been victims of the terrorist groups that Iran has given life to.

  • gmn122

    Well this isn’t surprising:

    That’s all the proof you’ll ever need. It’s a shame though that only farsi-speakers will be able to understand it.