Friday, July 20, 2007

How Nasty Is Iran?

Matthew Yglesias writes a post with that title on the way Iran is treated these days in much of the American media:

For example, Iran is often characterized in the American press as a "totalitarian" regime, by both conservative and liberal hawks. Leading Democratic Party political operatives like Ken Baer will call you an apologist for the Iranian regime if you dispute this "totalitarian" concept. Thus "you" may well think that Iran is, in fact, a totalitarian society.

Which it isn't. The Iranian regime, though harsh on political dissidents, isn't Stalin's Russia or China during the Cultural Revolution. Crucially, it's not more repressive in any clear way than lots of countries -- China, Saudi Arabia, etc. -- we have perfectly normal diplomatic relations with. One of the reasons Hirsch probably overstated the case somewhat is that so many people -- powerful people -- seem invested in overstating things on the other side.

Nothing wrong with that, as far as I can see. But then the post is accompanied by this photograph of young Iranian women:

One picture is worth a thousand words, right? And what does the picture tell us? That Iranian women dress pretty much like their Western counterparts? That the rules about dress don't seem that strict at all? That's the quick message the picture seems to give me.

Of course it's impossible to tell how common the pictured dress is in Iran or how well the relaxed dress code of these young women reflects better women's rights in general.

I'm all for not bombing Iran under the pretense that this would be good for its human rights record. It wouldn't work that way at all, partly, because dead relatives tend to make people sort of angry at everything the killer represents, including things such as supposedly Western feminism. But I'm also not comfortable with the idea that the problems women and many other groups suffer in Iran should not be discussed because it might give warhawks more material. That sounds too much like the old idea of women's issues never being important enough to discuss until things somehow settle down. Which they never do.