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Part of Obama’s reticence may be reflect his advisers’ tendency to conflate the Islamic Republic’s longstanding and somewhat limited “reform movement” with Iranian civil society as a whole. True, many of the pre-2009 reformists have said that U.S. assistance taints them. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, for example, Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan blamed Bush’s advocacy of democracy for a backlash that culminated in Ahmadinejad’s 2005 victory. This theory conflicts with claims from unsuccessful candidates in the 2005 election that Ahmadinejad won that vote through widespread fraud–claims whose credibility the most recent election has heightened. Regardless, Derakhshan showed his and the reform movement’s true colors when he endorsed the regime’s use of forced confessions from dissidents. As the liberal American journalist Laura Secor wrote in 2005, “Iran’s reform movement, for all its courage, was the loyal opposition in a fascist state.” It is unwise for Obama to permit this small group, rather than the much larger and more moderate body of Iranians who oppose the theocracy, to guide U.S. policy.
This does not mean that all dissidents want U.S. assistance. Journalist Akbar Ganji voices a common complaint when he says that U.S. assistance provides an excuse for government repression. Yet when Ganji was sent to prison for six years, Bush had not yet taken office. Obama should realize that the Islamic Republic’s repression predates any U.S. support for the Iranian people. The 1988 massacre of more than 3,000 imprisoned dissidents–described in Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri’s memoirs–had nothing to do with Washington and everything to do with the character of the Iranian regime.
Then there is the Obama administration’s misplaced moral concern, which rests on the idea that offering rhetorical support for the Iranians would burden the White House with responsibility for their welfare. The root of this worry is George H. W. Bush’s entreaty in 1991 that the Iraqi people rise up against Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi government massacred tens of thousands in putting down the subsequent rebellion while the United States watched. But the supposed parallel with the present Iranian situation is faulty, because the Iranian crackdown began before Obama made any statement and grew in strength while he waffled. And as the case of Solidarity and martial law in Poland demonstrated in 1981, the risk of a crackdown does not necessarily outweigh the benefit of providing moral support to a protest movement: There, what in the short term was a setback eventually proved a watershed and was followed by positive and lasting change.
Obama’s initial neutrality neither kept the Iranian government from calling the demonstrators foreign agents nor spared them a harsh crackdown. In a nationally broadcast sermon on June 26, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami called the protest leaders “worthy of execution” and declared, “Anyone who fights against the Islamic system or the leader of Islamic society, fight him until complete destruction.” Security forces continue to arrest students and professors and harass Iranians working at foreign embassies in Tehran. Precedent suggests that Mousavi himself may be destined for exile, a premature death, or both. While U.S.-based Iranian academics praise Obama’s hands-off approach, many ordinary Iranians have used Twitter to appeal for the world’s moral support.
The protests have shifted the paradigm on Iran, and this should make Obama reconsider his approach. While every president since Carter has reached out to the Iranian people, Obama has made recognizing the legitimacy of Iran’s theocracy a cornerstone of his policy. In his March 20 message for the Persian New Year, he declared, “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran [as opposed to simply "Iran"] to take its rightful place in the community of nations.”
The street protests may be ending, but the larger battle over the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is just beginning. Certainly, 30 years after the revolution, the failure of the Iranian people to embrace theocracy highlights the regime’s vulnerability. It is hard to preach that “our nation is united, and unity in Iran is a role model for the entire world,” as Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, did in January, when people chant “Death to the dictator!” in the streets.
As the White House makes policy, it should not give to Tehran what the Iranian people withhold. Obama may face calls to engage the mullahs over Iran’s nuclear program, for example, but U.S. interests and moral leadership need not be mutually exclusive. Diplomacy is no panacea, and talk is a tactic, not a strategy. Rushing into negotiations–and bestowing legitimacy on the regime–rewards the Islamic Republic for its nuclear program and thereby encourages its continuance. The irony is that the forces suppressing the Iranian people–the supreme leader and his Revolutionary Guards–are the very forces that command and control the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Recognition that the American and Iranian peoples have a common foe should form the basis of a long-term strategy that seeks the triumph of the Iranian people over a destabilizing and unpredictable regime.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.
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