An Uncertain Trumpet: Obama Plays to Lose In Iran

Supporters of Mousavi Demonstrate in Tehran
Supporters of Mousavi Demonstrate in Tehran

Much of the world has been mesmerized by the situation in Iran following the election on June 12 and Ahmadinejad’s questionable victory over Mir-Houssein Mousavi.

As the protests have increased in number and intensity and the official violence directed at them has surged, much of the American public as well as the press has rallied to the cause of the protesters. The US government has also jumped on the bandwagon. An obligatory resolution supporting the protesters passed the House 405-1. Obama had ice cream. It short, the attention of the government has been riveted on what is going on in the streets of Tehran.

But does the outcome of this really matter to us? Or does it matter in the way a lot of folks think it matters?

What we’re getting wrong.

The narrative being constructed in the media portrays the Iranian protests as the spiritual descendant of the Solidarity protests in Poland in the 1980s, People Power in the Philippines (1986), the Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia (1989), Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004-05) in which widespread discontent at repressive regimes led to their overthrow. They aren’t.

While there is no doubt that there are some number of protesters who wish a more liberalized political structure in Iran and an Iran more closely integrated with the rest of the world, there is no evidence that they are present in these demonstrations in large numbers.

Simply put, Ahmadinejad represents one faction of Iran’s ruling elite. Mousavi represents another. The demonstrations are a falling out amongst thieves over the future path of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Far from being a popular revolution the demonstrations in Iran largely are indistinguishable from the falling out between the followers of Stalin and those of Trotsky in 1926-28. I, for one, find it really hard to identify good guys in this picture.

Why The Outcome Matters.

When one cuts to the chase, the outcome of the street demonstrations matter for one reason. Tehran is on the cusp of acquiring a nuclear weapon. Our national objective should be to forestall the development of such a weapon but when that ultimately fails, our objective must be to ensure that weapon is neither used to solve the “Jewish problem” that obsesses the muslim world nor as a bludgeon to cow its neighbors.

Outside the cognoscenti, few people view the Tehran regime as a reliable, or even suitable, partner for negotiations. The regime is corrupt to its core and Ahmadinejad and his ruling claque are determined to spread Iranian influence, by any necessary means, in the Persian Gulf for no greater reason than simply to be able to say they have done so. Tehran and its nuclear ambitions are not going away in the foreseeable future but Ahmadinejad limits the tools we have to deal with the problem.

In the plus column, the regime is corrupt, unemployment is astronomical, the nation is virtually bankrupt, and drug abuse is endemic and none of these ills show signs of abating. The world economic downturn can be expected to aggravate all these conditions.

While Mousavi makes pleasing noises to Western ears about privatization of the economy and the rule of law, one cannot lose sight of the fact that Iran when Mousavi was prime minister of Iran was an enthusiastic exporter of revolution and terror. Neither should one discount what “law” Mousavi is advocating adherence to or what would be done with the extra income generated through privatization.

Nothing in Mousavi’s past or his rhetoric mark him as an inherently more stable or malleable partner in any negotiations, or capitulation, the White House is contemplating. His rhetoric on the subject of Israel during his eight years as prime minister was as inflammatory as Ahmadinejad’s, He was closely allied with Ayatollah Khomeini. His rule was characterized by the suppression of dissent. It was under him that Iran began its quest for a nuclear weapon, that the IRGC began its mentoring of Lebanese Hezbollah, that the Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed, that Pan Am 103 fell to terrorism, and the undeclared “Tanker War” was waged in the Persian Gulf.

As detestable as Ahmadinejad might be to our eyes and ears, to date he has achieved little of note beyond driving Iran’s economy farther into the crapper and ushering in a veritable Age of Aquarius of corruption and cronyism which is eroding the credibility of Islamic Revolution. Mousavi is an acolyte of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. He understands the damage done to the Islamic Revolution, especially by the incumbent, and wants to bring back the integrity of the 1979 revolution. Why we would hope Mousavi prevails escapes me.

Why Supporting the Protesters Is Necessary.

So while I think we have dreadfully misread what is afoot in Tehran, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something. Or in the words of some philosopher, “it’s a shame to waste a crisis.”

It is necessary that the United States to be seen as supportive of popular movements directed at unpopular regimes. I was an early adherent to President Bush’s Democracy Agenda and remain as convinced today as I ever was that the true road to suppressing transnational terrorism is government that is responsive to an electorate. Despite the odious nature of both parties, neither the people protesting nor anyone else should think that we have abandoned our commitment to human rights and liberty. Regardless of the beliefs of the demonstrators they are protesting a stolen election and the hijacking of the rule of law. Even if you violently disagree with what follows, everyone should honor the protests for the sake of our credibility. That these protests weaken Ahmadinejad are most assuredly a feature not a bug.

It is necessary that Iran’s government be replaced. Were the protesters a spontaneous gathering of heretofore closeted Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, and Jacksonian democrats we would have to carefully calibrate our actions to prevent a repeat of the inadvertent bloodbaths our rhetoric inspired in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956. That is not the case. We are witnessing a public split amongst the revolutionary elites. Without wishing to appear overly Machiavellian, the best outcome for the United States is violent repression of the demonstrators by the security forces of the regime. There is virtually zero chance that the street protests will cause the fall of the Iranian government but they can create a permanent rupture in the inner circles of the Iranian government, further discredit Ahmadinejad in Iran and the muslim world, and weaken the regime. Those seem to me to be great outcomes.

It is necessary to forestall Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon. As counterintuitive as it seems an Ahmadinejad regime is much less likely to be able to develop a miniaturized nuclear weapon and delivery system than a Mousavi regime. An Ahmadinejad regime weakened by internal dissent is weaker than one that it unified. A Mousavi regime that stresses privatization and anti-corruption measures, on the other hand, could very well lead to a more stable government with greater popular support and more resources to expend to develop and proliferate nuclear weapons. Given the options, dealing with a weak, discredited Ahmadinejad regime seem preferable to all others.

Why the White House is wrong.

The White House is doing its best to do nothing while giving the illusion of doing something. There view in undoubtedly shaped by the virtual certainty that neither the Army nor the Pasdaran will acquiesce in Ahmadinejad’s ouster and they will have to deal with him. This goes a long way towards explaining the White House’s tepid response to date.

Working from that assumption, the administration seems to have concluded that if it does anything more substantial than having an ice cream in the honor of the protesters will damage future negotiations. From the number of times the administration has denied interfering in Iran it seems as though Obama is working under some sort of Prime Directive. Not interfering is really not an option. By not endorsing the protests, Obama is in practice endorsing Ahmadinejad and labeling our 30-year national policy of supporting human rights as a fraud. The idea that staying silent on the protests will produce an Ahmadinejad who is more cuddly is nothing short of wishful thinking.

By their actions thus far the White House has chosen the worst of all decisions.

Its milquetoast endorsement of the protests calls into question US policy in regards to human rights in countries from Belarus to Burma.

By running like a scalded dog from the word “interference,” the administration has lost the ability to interfere in any country at any time and given a license to any despot to do whatever they wish while we safely “bear witness.”

From a purely realpolitik standpoint the administration is choosing to deal with a strengthened, emboldened Ahmadinejad in any negotiations rather than an Iranian leader who is weakened.

Even the most charitable observer must conclude that the administration’s response to a major opportunity in Iran has been fitful and unfocused. Each day more of the opportunity for us to strengthen our position in the region, and in Iran, at the expense of the Iranian government slips by. As someone smarter than me said, the reason Obama is eating ice cream is because he doesn’t have a fiddle.