Fifty years ago, during the Cuban missile crisis, the United States faced what is frequently described as the defining challenge of the Cold War. Today, some argue that America is facing a similarly defining challenge from Iran’s nuclear activities. In this context, it is striking to recall President John Kennedy’s warning, proffered just months before the missile crisis, that “the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Half a century later, Kennedy’s warning applies all too well to America’s discussion—it hardly qualifies as a real debate—about how best to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For more than thirty years, American analysts and policy-makers have put forward a series of myths about the Islamic Republic: that it is irrational, illegitimate and vulnerable. In doing so, pundits and politicians have consistently misled the American public and America’s allies about what policies will actually work to advance US interests in the Middle East.
The most persistent—and dangerous—of these myths is that the Islamic Republic is so despised by its own people that it is in imminent danger of overthrow. From the start, Americans treated the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79 as a major surprise. But the only reason it was a surprise was that official Washington refused to see the growing demand by the Iranian people for an indigenously generated political order free from US domination. And ever since then, the Islamic Republic has defied endless predictions of its collapse or defeat.
The Islamic Republic has survived because its basic model—the integration of participatory politics and elections with the principles and institutions of Islamic governance and a commitment to foreign policy independence—is, according to polls, electoral participation rates and a range of other indicators, what a majority of Iranians living inside the country want. They don’t want a political order grounded in Western-style secular liberalism. They want one reflecting their cultural and religious values: as the reformist President Mohammad Khatami put it, “freedom, independence and progress within the context of both religiosity and national identity.”
That’s what the Islamic Republic, with all its flaws, offers Iranians the chance to pursue. Even most Iranians who want the government to evolve significantly—for example, by allowing greater cultural and social pluralism—still want it to be the Islamic Republic. After Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi lost to the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Western elites and Iran “experts” portrayed the Green Movement that morphed out of Mousavi’s campaign as a mass popular uprising poised to sweep away the Islamic Republic. But the Greens, even at their height, never represented anything close to a majority of Iranians, and within a week of the election, their social base was already contracting. The fundamental reason was that, after Mousavi failed to substantiate his charge of electoral fraud, the Greens’ continued protests were no longer about a contested election, but a challenge to the Islamic Republic itself—for which there was only a negligible constituency.
While many Westerners prefer to believe that the Greens did not fade because of their own weaknesses, but because of cruel suppression by an illegitimate regime, this does not hold up to scrutiny. In the fifteen months preceding the shah’s 1979 departure, his troops gunned down thousands of protesters—and the crowds demanding his removal kept growing. In 2009, police brutality unquestionably occurred in the course of the government’s response to post-election disturbances. The government itself acknowledged this—for example, by closing a prison where some detainees were physically abused and murdered, and by indicting twelve of that prison’s personnel (two were later sentenced to death). But fewer than 100 people died in the clashes between demonstrators and security forces after the 2009 election, and still the Greens retreated and their base shrank.