The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dust Storm

In the Midst of Iranian Chaos, Obama Seeks to Portray the U.S. as a Reasonable Alternative to Violence and Aggression

The re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian presidential election last week was disappointing for all and particularly frustrating for those who support President Obama’s policy of attempted engagement with Iran. Although the evidence is admittedly circumstantial, it seems highly likely that voter fraud occurred, especially with the counting and reporting of results.

However, those critical of engagement are wrong to hold up this defeat as proof of the policy’s naïveté or ineffectiveness. The extemporaneous and widespread protests that have erupted from the supporters of challenger Hossein Mousavi have embarrassed and threatened Iran’s ruling religious clique to its core. Rather than reflect strength, Ahmadinejad’s despicable use of force to quell protests, which has reportedly killed at least seven people and wounded countless others, only reflects weakness and desperation.

What is more, the unrest has transcended Ahmadinejad to touch Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After giving his blessing to the election results two days ago, Khamenei subsequently called on Iran's powerful Guardian Council of mullahs to investigate charges of voter fraud and recount ballots.

While Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is probably correct in skeptically asserting, “It is simply a faux investigation to quell the protests,” the damage done to Khamenei’s reputation is deep and likely to remain long after anger in the streets of Tehran subsides.

“After congratulating the nation for having a sacred victory, to say now that there is a possibility that it was rigged is a big step backward for him,” said Abbas Milani, the director of Stanford University’s Iranian Studies program. “The myth that there is a leader up there whose power is unquestionable is broken,” agrees Azar Nafisi, an Iranian academic and writer now living in the West.

Even if the Guardian Council holds a fair recount, a good chance remains the results will still disappoint. U.S. intelligence officials report, “It would appear that the results are inflated,” but potentially accurate. It is important to remember the surge in Mousavi’s favor is very recent, with Ahmadinejad widely expected to win prior to that point.

Ken Ballen, president of Terror Free Tomorrow and Patrick Doherty, a deputy director at the New America Foundation conducted a nation-wide poll in Iran that showed Ahmadinejad preferred to Mousavi by a two-to-one margin. Jon Cohen at the Washington Post notes two important caveats about this poll.

First, the poll was conducted three weeks ago before much of the Mousavi surge came into play. Second, and most important, Ahmadinejad’s impressive lead did not reflect anywhere near the sixty-three percent of the vote he purportedly received in the election. Only thirty-four percent of poll respondents favored him as compared to fourteen percent for Mousavi. Of the fifty-two percent left unaccounted, twenty-seven percent expressed, no opinion and fifteen percent refused to answer.

While it is impossible to know for certain, it is reasonable to assume that, as the leader of the regime in power and candidate most favored by Khameni, Ahmadinejad’s supporters would be much less likely to refuse to express their preference than would those of Mousavi.

Numerous pundits have gone on record criticizing President Obama for failing to make a sufficiently angry denunciation of the Iranian regime and/or staunch enough exhortation to the masses struggling against it.

Columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post complains Obama is “slow to the draw. He seems to be so worried about not being George W. Bush that he's forgetting to be the American President.”

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as the editioral board at the Wall Street Journal see things a little more harshly. They accuse Obama of “siding with the regime” against the demonstrators, arguing he is plugged into his policy of engagement (read “appeasement”) so inflexibly that he finds the demonstrations “inconvenient to this agenda.”

In their minds, presumably, the President would demonstrate true leadership by huffing and puffing at the mullahs and cheering for the dissenters. This is exactly backwards.

Gary Sick, an analyst who worked on Iranian affairs for three Administrations, maintains Obama must restrain himself right now, in order to help the Iranian opposition best. "No matter what was said or done by the Administration, it would be interpreted as intervention and would actually undercut severely the position of the reformists as they would be tagged as ‘tools of the West’,” he explains.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post concurs. “Obama would make a mistake if he seemed to meddle in Iranian politics. That would give the mullahs the foreign enemy they need to discredit the reformers . . . I'd argue that he should continue with the line he took in his Cairo speech two weeks ago – speaking directly to its Muslim public even as he proposes dialogue with the repressive regime that governs Iran.”

This is exactly what the President did in his remarks about the election and the subsequent protests it sparked. “We respect Iranian sovereignty,” Obama said. “We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries and we'll see where it takes us.” But he also said of the protestors, “The world is watching and is inspired by their participation, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the election . . . Iranian people's voices should be heard and respected.”

The critical thing to remember is that some significant portion of Iranians did vote for Ahmadinejad, meaning they still fear a lack of support for Islam and unyielding support for Israel by the U.S. more than they fear his childish diatribes and nuclear brinksmanship. Obama is trying to minimize and de-legitimatize these fears over time.

“A growing portion of the Iranian public sees an opening with the U.S. as positive, and Obama has encouraged that,” one intelligence officer explained. “What the President has done thus far is create a strategic framework for understanding the U.S. in a different way," agrees a second. Obama is “chipping away” at the radical narrative and “increasing the number of alternatives to that radical view. He's making more attractive the idea that change can occur outside the radicalization process.”

Even Tawfik Hamid, a former jihadist from Egypt, credits Obama for encouraging “critical thinking” among young Muslims, driving them beyond the simplistic dichotomy between halal (pure and Islamic) and haram (impure and un-Islamic).

A sudden democratic movement within Iran is encouraging but it must come from within, including a willingness to pay the price to break tyranny and win freedom, or the chances of lingering success are unpredictable at best. This is the lesson learned from our forays into Afghanistan and Iraq. Some Iranians seem to realize it too.

“We need a Gandhi,” said an Iranian woman, identified only as Yassamin, over the weekend. “We need Moussavi to risk his life and stand there.”

The chances of that seem unlikely. When demonstrations first broke out, Mousavi posted a message on his website, declaring he would not attend the rally and asking his supporters “not fall in the trap of street riots and exercise self-restraint.”

As the protests grew in momentum, Mousavi did finally show up. His latest pronouncement, issued through his representative, the reformist cleric Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, is more encouraging. “If the whole people become aware, avoid violent measures and continue their civil confrontation, they will win. No power can stand up to the people’s will.”

Should Mousavi somehow ultimately prevail, those criticizing Obama for his lack of support may be most disappointed. As Obama pointed out yesterday, while the difference in tone between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad is striking, their differences in policy “may not be as great as has been advertised.”

Roger Cohen of the New York Times reported on one protesting Iranian student’s reaction to Ahmadinejad’s characterization of his opponents as mere dust. “We will blind him with our dust.”

A new democratic Iranian revolution may be destined to end as dust but the need for the U.S. to engage Iran and the larger Islamic world continues with or without it. We have just seen that words can raise dust storms of monumental proportions. The last thing we need at this moment of chaos in Iran is a lot of coughing and spluttering to constitute U.S. foreign policy, no matter how well intentioned. Obama is holding the right course.

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