Some thoughts on the US posture on the Iranian protests

Yet even if the current regime survives the present challenge, the impact of the crisis is likely to be salutary. Iran’s appeal as a model of Islamic governance has been tarnished by this episode: instead of being the principled defenders of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary vision of the “rule of the jurisprudent,” his successors now look more like garden-variety authoritarians trying to hang onto privilege and power in the face of widespread popular discontent. And that means Muslims elsewhere will be less inclined to see Tehran as an inspiration, even if they are unhappy with political conditions in their own countries.

Walt, Stephen M., “Prescription for Iran: Patient Containment,” 23 June, 2009.

This is a notion that has taken some currency among American observers of the Iranian disturbances: that the State’s response to the post-election protests will (or has) seriously damaged Iran’s prestige in the eyes of the “world” and that this will weaken its position in its immediate vicinity and the world at large. Ahmadinejad will not longer walk with so full a swagger, and those who sympathize with his rhetoric and system of government will find cause to think again. This blogger is not so sure, at least as far as the Arab world is concerned.

In the first place, it is unclear that this belief comes from any credible place. It seems to come as a mere postulate, a hypothetical rarely backed with any genuine substance. (The Arabic Media Shack has been good about following the discourse.) There are no quotations (or research or investigations) representing the views of those who would previously have sympathized with the Iranian position geopolitically or otherwise, be they Arabs on the street or in their countries’ opposition. Those Arabs quoted, if they are indeed quoted (which they seem to be only rarely), are of Arab officialdom which is already hostile towards and wary of the Islamic Republic in general. When Walt, and this is written with the highest esteem for his scholarship and knowledge, writes of “Muslims elsewhere,” of whom is he speaking? One must consider that those Arab Muslims who tally with Ahamdinejad or the Islamic Republic’s regional policy do so not because they wish to live in Iran or like Iranians; rather they do so because they agree with the worldview he puts forth regarding Israel, Palestine and the general gist of outside influence in the Middle East. It is less about Iran’s form of government than the regional conduct of its government, which regardless of how it treats protesters still represents the only government in the region that consistently “stands up” to the United States and Israel. These are those who derive some measure of vicarious dignity by watching Iran’s bluster and defiance from cafes and living rooms in client states of the United States. Few of these presume that their governments would do any differently to them if they were to take to the streets in the way the Iranians have.

Those outside Iran looking for an Islamic Republic of their own are already on the defensive for myriad reasons, the recent disturbances will not likely have their potential supporters reflecting on them, for they are likely to be Sunnis; their sympathizers will likely attribute this to the folly of Shiism or some other silliness, if not the simple fact that any worldly State survives by means of coercion, violent or otherwise. The Lebanese who support Iranian-backed Hezb Allah do so for their own reasons that will persist on after this episode is done with, for their cause is sui generis to Lebanon. Particularities ought not be minimized on behalf of wishful thinking. It is not wise to believe that most Muslims outside Iran have any illusions about the Islamic Republic any more than those they have about their own governments. In addition, one must also remember that much of Iran’s geopolitical weight is derived from its status as a major hydrocarbon producer, not its system of government.

Walt is correct, elsewhere in his post, that talk about “revolution” in Iran at this stage is premature. Your blogger would go even further and call it bogus. His estimations about the strength of the security apparatus and its support for the victors is about right, according to any estimate seen by this writer. But he is especially sapient to note that little media coverage has focused on the politics of that aspect of the State or on those elements of society beyond the urban young people in these streets, which is usually the case in Western reporting on Iran: those who might support the regime or elements of it are ignored or treated as villains or foils. Thus there is a gap in all of our understandings of the situation that can only be filled by the passing of time and the opening of new information.

Secondly, this view seems to be especially “western” or at least American in that it overemphasizes the importance of such internal affairs in world politics. Surely, Western governments will view Iran somewhat differently after these troubles than they did before (though not by much, as they appear to merely have confirmed pre-existing primary assumptions, at least in the US). Take this lamentation for instance:

But as each day of the week has gone by, America’s silence seems less defensible. Do we really intend to engage the current regime as if nothing had happened? Do we really believe it is useful to send a message that America doesn’t care any longer, won’t act, won’t speak out, won’t penalize or criticize or seek to pressure those who compromise or crush democracy?

This is view that is predominantly confined to North America and Western Europe. Much of the rest of the world’s significant powers, China and Russia especially, will only look at the Iranians as being more incompetent in their authoritarianism than previously thought. But they are unlikely to change their foreign policies toward that country, for after all, their priorities are secular and they do not regard their external politics as involving missionary work. Most states will not bother to change their policies towards Iran because of the election disputes, and there are few good reasons for them to do so. Here, Americans must ask themselves: what are our national priorities in Iran? The nuclear issue is not one that will be influenced heavily by the victory of either Moussavi or Ahmadinejad; there is little of substance at stake for the United States, tone is the only potential variable. On what basis can the US further “penalize or criticize or seek to pressure” Iran, a country with whom America has no formal relations and on whom it has forced numerous economic and political sanctions already? Indeed, America should engage with Iran on the basis of its national interest. The root of the tension between the two countries is foreign, not domestic, policy. It from here that any engagement must proceed.

It is “useful” to send a message that America “doesn’t care”; indeed sending a loudmouthed and ignorantly phrased statement might have a more negative impact than the laconicism that had begun to characterize the President’s posture before the voices of the boneheaded cacophony became so morally valorous. The less it appears the US cares, the better for Iranians in the opposition, who then worry less about being accused being tools of outside actors in their own country. A “bold” response, however well intentioned (and it is hard to say that one would be as much; the goal of such American sentiments is to embarrass and undermine the Iranian state out of self-interest, which is fine and well, and the US has indeed been working to undermine the Iranian government by lobbying Twitter in any case), in its carelessness would likely reap a more devastating and unpleasant result than the measured and subtle one favored by the White House. Those asking for more would do well to consider more heavily the potential consequences their arm chair activism might have on the Iranians for whom they so dramatically shed their crocodile tears.

This is the great folly of many in the Hope and Change camp who have come along with President Obama for the wrong reasons and the neoconservatives (and movement conservatives) who continue to believe in the objective validity or relevance of their theory of existence. This is not, or at least is not intended to be, a foreign policy based on ideology. Here your blogger disagrees with many on the nature of President Obama and his worldview. This is a goal oriented presidency, one of pragmatism and one of thought. The populism riled up by the President’s expert English is only one piece of the story: where the previous President sought to impress through pronouncements on and commitments to the impossible and the improbable, this President has set his sights on what can and needs to be done. It is a pity that he has been so quick to bend to Congressional and otherwise prevailing demands to be “tougher” on this subject while his initial instincts were in the best place they could have been: for the most part removed from emotionalism and the ideological bullocks that characterizes so much of what has become the common cable news discourse on the protests.

His failure to hold his ground has allowed for the kind of pretty point scoring that produces lame op-eds from the poorly informed “perspective”. The Week has a round up of this “commentary.” Considering the options, which are few, President Obama’s response has been impolitic only to the truly cretinous. The greatest outrage comes not from Small “d” democrats but from those hoping to win points in domestic politics. If it did not put the national interest and many lives potentially further at risk that are already in peril it might be more noble than grotesque.

David Brooks was right on 18 June: the administration understands the scope of the matter, which is why it has behaved the way it has. But he and others are wrong to compare Iran to the Soviet Union or to pretend that the Iranian regime is about to collapse anytime soon. Brooks is also right that Obama is a realist. (See here, too.) It is time the banshees who flinch at any hint of realpolitik or pragmatism learn to live with the consequences of international politics: this a nasty, brutish and, if we are foolish, short lived business. It is better to forgo unnecessary missionary work and judiciously prioritize in order to do what one can for whom one can.

As it is written:

It is enough for practical men to fend off present evils and secure existing interests. They must not cumber themselves with historical dogmas, or chase illusions in that maze of double talk which western political vocabulary has extended over the whole world.

For those who sympathize with the Iranians in the street, whatever they may think of Obama’s response and its legalism or its chilly way, it is better that they get less from their President than more. The administration began in the right frame of mind and with the proper verbiage, squaring as best it could the interests of Iranians in the opposition and the American nationalist, the latter of which is and should generally be first in times such as this one. It is often the case that what is desired is not necessary, fitting or beneficial and that leadership must operate contrary to the loudest voice. This is one of those occasions.


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