Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran and Ahmadinejad Are Stumbling. Obama, Time to Step Up!

As the protests continue in Iran, President Obama is unsurprisingly mum. With domestic turmoil unlike any seen since 1979, the Iranian reformists are showing their displeasure with the iron-fisted theocracy and its stooge Ahmadinejad. The momentous rebellion (soon to be revolution?) is perfectly poised to bring about real change in one of the biggest threats to American security.

As Robert Kagan eloquently points out in the Washington Post (See here , Obama is acting in a pure realist fashion. His stated goal is to dialogue with Iran. Any behavior that annoys or upsets the current leaders of Iran is supposedly detrimental to Obama’s aims. So he chooses to remain relatively quiet about the gross abuses. Obama sides with the enemy because he wants to leave avenues open to dialogue when the protests flare out. This of course assumes that whatever happens in the short-run, the Iranian leadership will remain in power in the long-run.

He buttresses this by claiming to take the high ground. America does not want to meddle in Iranian affairs is his message. He states, “the easiest way for reactionary forces inside Iran to crush reformers is to say it’s the U.S. that is encouraging those reformers…. What I’ve said is, look, it’s up to the Iranian people to make a decision….We are not meddling.” This argument essentially assumes that reformist Iranians will be thwarted if they perceive the Americans as controlling and dictating the movement.

This, to some degree, may be true. However, the argument misses an important subtlety. The US is often criticized when it ‘helps’, but it is also criticized when it fails to help. The fact of the matter is, it is not about whether the US helps or not, but how it helps. There is a whole spectrum of actions the US government can take to show support and give assistance without leading the charge. A simple show of solidarity by outwardly condemning the Iranian election abuses would go far to strengthen the moral of the Iranian reformists. Any freedom loving individual would find much strength in hearing his fight recognized and legitimated. Beyond that, the US can offer political pressure on Iran and assistance in enabling the Iranian protestors to get their voices heard above the government censorship.

Any action in favor of the protestors can and will be used by Ahmadinejad to drum up anti-Americanism. The strategy is undeniably successful with parts of the Arab and Persian worlds. An America portrayed as colonial and imperialist, meddling in Iranian affairs can raise deep-seeded emotions. However, as he has shown, Ahmadinejad does not need America to do anything to use this tactic. The Iranian despot is already blaming the US for instigating the protest (See MSNBC: If the bankruptcy of Obama’s Iranian policy wasn’t already clear, this puts the final nail in the coffin. Why bother trying to avoid meddling, if you are accused of it anyway?

The fact of the matter is, that the US has a huge potential to do a lot of good, and Obama is squandering it. John McCain and many others recognize this and are calling for more action. Obama seems so blindly obsessed with being the anti-Bush and pursuing his ‘talking’ policy that he is failing to see what is right before his nose. The Iranian regime is teetering; freedom needs a gentle push from America.


  1. Josh--

    I suppose it would not help to remind you that U.S. “meddling” in Iranian affairs has been nothing short of disastrous over the past 50 years. From re-implementing and backing the hated Shah — it was Carter’s allowance for him to seek cancer treatment on U.S. soil in 1979 that incited the hostage crisis — to removing Hussein as Iran’s no. 1 opponent, our attempts to fiddle with that country have often backfired. Adding them to the “Axis of Evil,” I’m afraid, only galvanized the hard-line elements in that country and, unless I’m mistaken, did preciously little to halt their nuclear program.

    Let’s not forget that Iran is the modern-day inheritor of Persia; it is a culture that steadfastly believes in its own superiority and viciously refutes the idea that other peoples can manipulate it. Delusional or not, they simply will not tolerate overt foreign interventionism in their dealings, and in an Islamic Republic, the involvement of the “Great Satan” is not exactly helpful in unseating the demagogues that rule that country.

    Of course, you don’t have to take my word for any of this. Bush’s Iran ambassador, Nicholas Burns, recently told NPR ( that “President Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to see a very aggressive series of statements by the United States that would try to put the U.S. in the center of this … And I think President Obama is avoiding that quite rightly.”

    Or Christian Brose, a former speechwriter for Condoleeza Rice, in his blog for (, said Tuesday that “[Obama’s] expressions of support for Iran’s sovereignty, respect for its people, and resolve that it is Iranians, not America and not anyone else, who should determine the outcome of Iran’s election are absolutely right.”

    In some ways, I think what we’re seeing in Iran right now is the best of all possible outcomes. Keeping Ahmadinejad — a clown who clings to power by making ridiculous rants — in office only succeeds in degrading the legitimacy of Iran’s government in the eyes of the world. This will be crucial in the upcoming months, as Obama seeks to increase international pressure on Iran, which will be best accomplished by squeezing its oil profits.

    Meanwhile, the popular uprising happening now in the streets, instigated by a generation too young to care about the ’79 revolution, provides the only real hope we have for regime change. Whether they succeed now or in the future, the fact that this visceral energy and desire for Western-style openness exists and is so prevalent signals an Iran that will have much to confront in the upcoming months and years.

    Hard power dictates the same empty, bellicose rhetoric that closed so many doors in this decade, often to no avail. Soft power means asking the heads of Twitter to postpone updating their system, in order to allow more Iranian students a forum for organization and reporting. Hard power, backed with the muscle of military airstrikes, incites hatred of America. Soft power — Obama’s message for reconciliation to the Iranian people in March was a “game-changer” for how those people look at us, said Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations ( — unsettles the system by making people think differently about the status quo in Iran.

    One way or another, Obama and the West will have to do business with Iran following all of this upheaval. For the U.S. administration to ignore the screaming facts of history, while soiling any chance for progress in the future, is ludicrous. Right now, the administration is correct in letting things play out, while strategically playing its hand toward the goal we all desire for that country — regime change.

    --Karl de Vries

  2. Karl-

    I have to disagree with you. First of all, I think you are missing one of the key points I am trying to make. You state that "[the Iranians] simply will not tolerate overt foreign interventionism in their dealings" and discuss how hard power will be counterproductive. The point I am making is not one of hardpower and US manipulation, but of a different sort of action.

    I think you are exactly right in stating that US intervention in the past has not succeeded. You are also right in your assessment of Iranian attitudes. But you make the mistake of viewing the situation as simplistic dichotomy- the same mistake that Obama is making.

    This is not a simple choice of do nothing or take control. Gross paternalism will backfire in our face. The Iranians do not want America swooping down on the situation, commendeering their revolution and dictating the terms. That is the exact sort of meddling that would play into Ahmadinejad's hands and frustrate the reformist movement. No freedom loving movement would want this. The reason though is not because they want to 'go it alone' but because they want ownership; they want the ability to dictate the terms.

    However, standing aside and giving Ahmadinejad free reign reeks of the same arrogance and paternalism that an American led intitative would have. It again ignores the people and views Iran and the events occuring through the lens of a bankrupt leadership. The Iranian movement wants recognition which is being denied by their government.

    The US can do much to help them, to side with them without falling into the trap of being the arrogant meddler. America can let the reformist lead the way, offering words of sympathy, support, and understanding. We can ask them what they want, what they need. We can put pressure on the Iranian government to grant concessions that the Iranian people. We can facilitate the Iranian voice. In short, America can be involved in a way that supports Iranian goals, desires and missions. We don't need to express and overtly act on our desires, but aid Iranians in expressing theirs.

    This is what the Iranians want- it is, by definition, what any (particularly democratic) protest movement wants -- to be heard and accepted. The US has a prime opportunity to assist this movement- a movement that not only coincides with our beliefs but will assist our foreign policy goals.

  3. Obama's policy tacitly assumes that this movement can't succeed. I think, on its face, that this is false. It is already painfully obvious that there is no room for negotiation with Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue. Whether or not we act in his interest now will not help gain or lose political capital with him.

    However, spurning the revolutionary forces will undermine our credibility as defenders of the free world and injure the reform movement. We didn't choose to light the fire, but we can help stoke it. If we let it burn its course it will burn out or quickly be deluged. What happens to Mousavi when the clerics regain the upper hand? Does he disappear in the night for his insolence? Will the reformists be able to see the light of day after this? Unfortunately, they will either weaken the regime or be destroyed. You don't think the Iranian street will be embittered with US policy when we leave them to swing?

    Obama claims he wants to win hearts and minds, but he is focusing solely on the few corrupt and abusive leaders- not on the wants and needs of the people. He is kidding himself if he thinks this will lead to better relationship with Iran.

    You are right that we have made mistakes in history. However, there is no such thing as a passive participant when it comes to a world power such as America. Our inaction is an action. We can't get away with doing nothing. Every action or inaction has its ramifications. To crawl into a hole because past actions have been less successful than envisioned (or completely unsuccessful) negates any lessons we could learn from those actions.

    Inaction, under the guise of leaving Iran to Iranians, is a cop-out, a poor excuse for trying to butter up a tyrant. It goes against every founding princple of America and Obama's supposed beliefs. It is a cowardly act, shrouded in the standard language of moral high ground. But the worst part is, that for all the supposed benefits to be gained, we are unlikely to see any change in Iranian position. Instead the reformists will swing, and the ruling clerics will retrench in their ways and the correctness of their ideology.


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