Sunday, March 03, 2013

Book Review: 'Going to Tehran'

I Heart Khomeini

According to Washington's most outspoken defenders of the mullahs, the Tehran regime is the most innocent of international actors.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's "Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms With the Islamic Republic of Iran" is a long and elaborate promotional brochure designed to sell Americans on the mullahs and their nuclear program. The husband-and-wife authors both served in government, including stints on the National Security Council staff, before emerging as two of Washington's most outspoken defenders of the Tehran regime. Their basic premise is that America's foremost concern today must be energy security, and thus, given that Iran is one of the world's biggest suppliers of oil, the U.S. must normalize relations. President Barack Obama, they argue, should take a page from Richard Nixon's book and go to Tehran.

The authors dismiss as lies or misunderstandings everything that would get in the way of such a trip: the mullahs' congenital hostility toward the U.S., their eliminationist rhetoric toward Israel, their illicit nuclear ambitions and terrorist activities, their brutality toward Iran's women, minorities and dissidents—it's all America's fault, anyway.

America's original sin, according to the authors, was the CIA-aided 1953 coup that dislodged Mohammad Mossadegh, the "democratically elected" prime minister of Iran's constitutional monarchy, and returned the shah to power. If you are wondering how an evil monarch would allow his prime minister to be democratically elected, you aren't alone. Unfortunately the truth—that Mossadegh was appointed by the shah—doesn't supply the requisite dose of tragedy for the anti-American narrative. The coup, say the Leveretts, outraged a patriotic ayatollah named Ruhollah Khomeini, who, motivated by "the underlying principles of justice" and "equality among peoples and nations," set out years later to depose the shah and restore Iranian sovereignty.

Going to Tehran

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
(Metropolitan, 478 pages, $32)

But American treachery didn't end after Khomeini's victory in the 1979 revolution, write the authors. Rather, the U.S. was continually plotting to depose him, and when the shah was admitted to America for medical treatment in October 1979, the revolutionaries just had to seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranian regime, as the authors see it, is the most innocent of international actors.

What about Iranian terror? "The most comprehensive, data-based study of suicide terrorism carried out to date determined that there has never been an Iranian suicide bomber," claim the authors.

How about the regime's anti-Semitism? Surely the authors ran across the New York Times report from an antidrug conference in Tehran last June, at which the Iranian vice president claimed that the Talmud teaches its students to "destroy everyone who opposes the Jews." The Leveretts aren't concerned: "The Islamic Republic, while anti-Zionist, is not anti-Semitic, as manifested in its treatment of Iran's Jewish community."

And what about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-denial conferences and nutsy claims about 9/11? No need to worry, insist the authors: The Iranian president is merely "challenging the foundational premises of wildly unpopular American and Israeli policies."

What should Americans make of Iranian leaders' threats, dating back to the 1980s, to destroy the Jewish state? ("The Iranian nation is standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel," Iran's top general declared last May, according to the state-run Fars News Agency.) Such fears, say the Leveretts, are based on "poor translation."

Well, you get the picture. Anything that could undermine this narrative is omitted by the Leveretts. In retelling the tale of 1953, what goes untold is the role played by Iran's leading Islamist clergy, who favored overthrowing the secular Mossadegh. While the Leveretts prodigiously quote from Khomeini's speeches to underline his love of country during his years in exile, they don't bother to examine the truthfulness of these statements in light of the ayatollah's record after taking control of Iran. After the overthrow of the shah in 1979, jubilant crowds renamed Tehran's main artery after Mossadegh, but the new authorities quickly changed the name to that of the Shiite messiah instead.

The pre-revolutionary Khomeini had vowed to pave the way for civil liberties and to retire from politics to a seminary in Qom once the shah was gone. But the authors say little about the contrast between the pre- and post-revolutionary Khomeini. Their chronic omissions also extend to their account of the hostage crisis. It goes unmentioned that the embassy was first seized hours after the victory of the revolutionaries in February 1979, some nine months before the admission of the shah to the U.S.

The Leveretts' claim that Iran has never produced suicide bombers is equally misleading: The Tehran regime has organized and armed the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which is one of the most effective suicide-bombing outfits on the planet, responsible for, among other actions, the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing—the single deadliest attack on U.S. Marines since World War II. (The Leveretts either deny or justify such acts, while maintaining elsewhere that claims that Iranian leaders are invested in anti-American ideologies are "at odds with the historical record.") And in this doorstop of a book, there isn't a single reference to the term fatwa or the name Salman Rushdie.

When the Leveretts don't omit history, they mislead through exactitude. One particular number, 21, caught my attention. That's the total number of kosher restaurants operating in Iran today, according to the authors. There is no source in the notes for this peculiarly precise statistic. So I contacted a former parliamentary representative of Iran's Jewish community to get his take. He suggested that the only time that Iran's Jews could have possibly afforded such ostentations was under the rule of King Xerxes and Queen Esther. A simple exercise of curiosity would have led the authors to the truth: In 1978, when the Jewish community was nearly five times larger than it is today—20,000 is the current estimated population—there were only a handful of kosher restaurants in all of Iran. But then neither skepticism nor inquiry inform this work.
Ms. Hakakian, the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in nonfiction, is the author, most recently, of "Assassins of the Turquoise Palace."
A version of this article appeared March 1, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: I Heart Khomeini.

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