Kristof’s Iran
New York Times columnist ignores the people's plight.


Michael Ledeen

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has been to Iran for a few days, and he’s full of deep thoughts about it. But, in keeping with the ideology of his social set, they are his thoughts, not those of the Iranian people. To be sure, he quotes Iranians–he’s astonished to discover that they do not fear being named–including some senior ayatollahs, to demonstrate the contempt of the people for the regime. Ayatollah Taheri calls the ruling mullahs “society’s dregs and fascists who consist of a concoction of ignorance and madness…(and) those who are convinced that yogurt is black.”

Kristof’s trip was worth the expense for that one quote alone. But instead of following the logic of the Iranian people’s enmity to the Islamic Republic–will the “Arab street” not be influenced by the utter failure of Islam in the region’s largest and most powerful country?–he lapses into politically correct dithering: “There’s a useful lesson here for George Bush’s America as well as for the ayatollahs’ Iran: when a religion is imposed on people, when a government tries too ostentatiously to put itself ‘under God,’ the effect is often not to prop up religious faith but to undermine it.”

Huh? Islam has failed in Iran, so utterly and dramatically that even the most senior religious leaders are attacking the theocracy. Has anything of the sort happened in America? No. Is religion “imposed on people” in America? No, indeed the opposite takes place; religion is banished from the public square and the faithful are disparaged as ignorant rednecks. Moreover, in America church and state are separate, while Iran is a theocracy. The two systems have nothing in common, except the New York Times’s party line, that religion is a bad thing and religious people are dangerous.

Kristof’s feeble attempt at moral equivalence (Bush=mullah) is embarrassingly silly.

Then he turns to the nature of tyranny, a subject on which he has a considerable reputation. He tells us that Iran is not an efficient police state. “It cracks down episodically, tossing dissidents in prison and occasionally even murdering them…. But Iran doesn’t control information…and people mostly get away with scathing criticism as long as they do not organize against the government.”

That “occasionally even” is pretty bad. He might have mentioned the slaughter of thousands of dissidents in the late 1990s, as he might have deigned to notice the relentless tempo of public executions today. To say that Iran “doesn’t control information” is disgraceful, since Journalists Without Borders has branded the regime the single-greatest predator of press freedom in the Middle East. Kristof tells us that “satellite television is ubiquitous,” yet thousands of satellite dishes have been torn down in Tehran alone, and those caught watching it are imprisoned, beaten, and tortured.

Then he tells us that America’s allies in the region are worse than the Iranians. Iran has elections after all, while the Saudis don’t, and two Iranian vice presidents are women. Well, Stalin had elections, too, of precisely the same sort the Iranians have: The regime chooses the candidates, and the voters perforce elect them. To claim that Iranian elections are a sign of freedom is an insult to the tens of millions of Iranians who boycotted the last vote in protest against the tyrannical regime. And to say that Iran has female vice presidents is to miss the whole point: The “government” is powerless, so whoever holds the empty chairs is there for publicity purposes or as a sinecure to favored families.

Kristof has missed the point of Iranian tyranny, which he could have discovered by looking more closely at the way the prisons function. Iranian jails are far more than detention centers; they are part of a vast system of intimidation. Iranian prisoners are released periodically, for periods ranging from 24 hours to several weeks. They are released so that their friends and families can see the horrible consequences of the tortures inflicted on them. The presence of these doomed people in the society at large is an open threat to the rest: If you challenge us, you will end up like this.

But Kristof only talks about “crackdowns,” not about torture. Yet in the same days he had, in his words, “just about convinced myself that Iran is not a police state,” Amnesty International was again calling for support of Siamak Pourzand, a 74-year-old who once headed a cultural center in Tehran, and is now suffering through an 11-year prison term that has reduced him to a human skeleton on the verge of death. He is suffering from spinal stenosis, for which he desperately needs surgery, and recently survived a massive heart attack, but no medical help was provided to him for many days. He barely survived, and the regime’s “crackdown” was such that he was chained to his hospital bed and kept in isolation from his family.

Kristof writes that “people mostly get away with scathing criticism as long as they do not organize against the government (he means “regime”).” But Siamak Pourzand did not direct scathing criticism against the regime, and he certainly did not organize a political force. He was simply an elegant and refined voice calling for greater artistic and cultural freedom within the Iranian tyranny. His real crime was, and is, his refusal to make a phony confession that would slake the regime’s thirst for the humiliation of those who dare to think for themselves.

There are scores of prisoners undergoing similar tortures, and their names are well known throughout Iran. It would have been easy for Kristof to write about them, describing their misery, praising their moral courage and physical stamina, and denouncing the regime that is trying to break them, and any other Iranian who seeks freedom.

He didn’t. The event that convinced him that it would be wrong to say “Iran is not a police state” was not murder or torture. It was being asked for 90 minutes if he was a spy for America or Israel, and he brags to his readers that “I tried to explain that my views make me unemployable by either the Bush or Sharon administrations,” a gratuitous bit of self-congratulation that is quite wrong, as his Iranian interrogators surely knew. Do you think the CIA and the Mossad only run spies with impeccable conservative credentials? Give me a break.

The Kristof articles either repeat what we already knew (thousands of column inches, and innumerable public acts have long since documented the Iranians’ hatred of the regime and love of America), or–with rare exceptions like the Taheri quote–mislead us about the evils of the regime, or trot out the snide self-indulgence of the East Coast liberal elite.

Par for the course.