On his blog Sec&Def Europe Frederik has taken the opportunity to write a little more on Iran and the coverage of events there following the presidential elections of June 2009 and that certainly is a good opportunity to poke him a little (that we seem to make a habit). His point of departure is an article by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett in today's Foreign Policy, in which they accuse many if not most writers to get the situation in Iran wrong—and here Frederik concurs—because they let themselves be driven not by facts but by their personal political agendas. The exception of course being the Leveretts themselves, who modestly claim to have given an accurate picture of the events and the situation in Iran—by the way, how did I miss that?
I always marvel such accounts for I have often believed that it would be a pretty big challenge to top my own arrogance in claiming to have given the best analysis. You might imagine that it is always a relief to find someone has managed to do just that. Though I am willing to admit that there has to be more than one sheriff in town, I am nonetheless afraid that I have to profoundly disagree with the Leveretts and Frederik on two fundamental points, even on the point that I might loose whatever modesty I may still be able to claim myself.
First: Are the Leveretts really implying that there can be objective coverage of events anywhere in the world? Are they really trying to tell me that they have mastered to relinquish all personal believes and experiences when reporting and analysing a situation? Now this is of course a ridiculous claim, it is also, I dare say, a frightening one. Why should it be desirable that someone who, let us say for the sake of the argument, has spent years in North Korea and has watched North Korean society, ditches his entire knowledge and tries to report objectively, that is without any personal contextualisation or any contextualisation at all? Not only would that reporting be sterile, it would simply be impossible since clearly we are—if we recall our modesty for a moment—incapable of escaping our past, education and experience and luckily so. The challenge is not, as the Leveretts want us to believe, to report in a non-selective manner—that I might remind them is impossible—but to report in a way that allows others to disagree and to check your reading and come up with a counter-narrative. This is a matter of principle and the Leveretts fail utterly in this respect.
Second: Claiming, as the Leveretts have, that the allegation of electoral fraud in last years presidential elections is based largely on a Chatam House report and not on a broad base of academic research and opinion is simply false. I remember quite vividly an e-mail I received a couple of hours after the first election results were in, in which one of the experts on Iran laid out his “reading” on the elections. I won't go through his points in detail, suffice it to say, he was absolutely certain that a massive fraud had taken place. His name was not Ali Ansari. His name was Juan Cole (who by the way has a brilliant blog himself), hardly someone who is suspicious of feeding a neo-conservative reading of Iranian politics. The point is this: The Leveretts do not need to agree with my line of argument or that of many others as much as I do not need to agree with their reading. Suggesting, however, that theirs is right and ours isn't because they've got the facts and we haven't is a bit silly, really. Or, if modesty is to prevail, it is an approach that lacks scholarly education. Narratives and counter-narratives are a vital part of getting the picture straight.