As expected, Andrew didn’t like the Leveretts’ op-ed, which he calls part of “their campaign to diminish the significance of the Iranian uprising.” They might say that they are interested in correctly assessing the significance of any uprising in order to make their policy recommendations as realistic as possible. After all, if Western policymakers start banking on domestic political unrest to undermine the Iranian government in a major way, they will pursue policies that would be very different than if they assume that the current Iranian government is not changing and not going anywhere. Andrew cites Scott Lucas, who complains that the Leveretts’ purpose is to “prop up the “default” option that the regime (whose political, religious, economic, and ideological position is not examined beyond that claim of a million protesters on its behalf on 30 December) must not only be accepted but embraced in talks.”

Obviously, if one believes that negotiating with Iran is a necessary and important next step in repairing relations between our governments, this is not a “default” option. It is the only realistic option there is. The hostage crisis ended 29 years ago, and the barracks bombing in Lebanon was over 26 years ago, and by this time after our war with Vietnam we had already normalized relations and had begun engaging in commerce with them. Considering how much more reason many Americans had to dislike and distrust Vietnam’s communist government, it is extraordinary that it has taken us less time to bury the hatchet with Hanoi than it has with Tehran.

If the Leveretts are pushing for negotiations, many of the pro-Green enthusiasts in the West are exploiting the protests to push for more confrontational, hard-line policies against Iran. Engagement was already distasteful enough in some quarters, and after the crackdown last summer it now seems even worse. This gives pro-sanctions and pro-bombing hawks all that they need to push for more of the same failed, counterproductive policies they have advocated for years. By holding out the illusion of substantial political change in Iran, hawks can push for delaying meaningful negotiations and can gain support for destructive sanctions measures. This has led to the increasing public support for military action against Iran that I have mentioned before. Were such military action to take place, it would be a political disaster for any opposition forces, who would be put in the impossible position of either appearing to betray their country by welcoming the attack or denouncing the attacks and rallying around the government they despise. As soon as there were any civilian casualties, the absurd claim that military strikes were aimed only at the regime and not at the people would be rendered void. Many of the people claiming to be friends of Iranian opposition forces are empowering the very forces here in the U.S. that would bring ruin to the Iranian opposition. As the old proverb says, “The yes-man is your enemy, but your friend will argue with you.”

Of course it might have some bearing on the real power of the Iranian government vis-a-vis the opposition that it can conjure up a crowd of a million “supporters” to the opposition’s tens of thousands. Andrew is right that the opposition protesters face far more risks and dangers, which is why the immediate post-election protests seemed so impressive and why the latest cycle of protests points to the steady weakening of the opposition. If most Iranians are fence-sitters looking for a sign of which side is more likely to win, amassing such a crowd will work to discourage most from taking the very serious risks that now go along with protesting against the government. These demonstrations don’t mean that the regime necessarily has masses of enthusiastic supporters (though we should be wary of dismissing the reality that a significant minority of Iranians tied into the establishment are genuine loyalists who have vested interests in the current government’s survival), but it means that they retain sufficient control and coercive powers that they can stage huge rallies and effectively prevent the opposition from gathering in similarly large numbers. It is a demonstration that the government commands public space and that it is not losing control. The government’s rallies may be fake and the opposition protests may be heartfelt and courageous, but so long as an authoritarian state can limit and divide its opposition and retains the loyalty of its security forces none of that matters.

Update: The Leveretts have a follow-up post at their blog.