June 15, 2009
Anyone who studies Iran know that the elections are to a large extent window dressing to legitimize the authoritarian theocracy. The real power rests not in the hands of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad but rather in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Chances that the mullahs would let their puppet "president" be ousted in a free election were slim to none, so it was no surprise when they announced the results almost as soon as the polls were closed. The challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, led street protests today, and Iranian security forces killed at least one of the demonstrators. This is a sign of a regime that is desperate and out of touch with the majority of the population, and that ought to be very good news for the United States and the free world in general. Perhaps "the Islamic republic" will be more of a republic and less Islamic in another year or two.
As the Washington Post notes, however, the political tumult is making it harder for President Obama's policy of "outreach" to Iran. A White House spokesman said the U.S. Government will have to deal with the Iran that is, not the Iran we would like to have. Ordinarily, that would be a sensible, pragmatic position to take, except for two things: First, Obama's very identity is that of a starry-eyed dreamer for whom no challenge is too daunting; Second, such words have a chilling effect on those in Iran who are pushing for more freedom. It's quite the opposite of the Bush administration, which tended to speak in grandiose terms about the spread of freedom and democracy, even if nothing much in concrete terms was actually done to help the cause. Still, Obama is adopting a very weak stance on what could be one of the most dramatic political shifts to take place in the Middle East in over a decade.
Some may argue that Iran's defiant crackdown on the pro-democracy movement shows that Obama's solicitous approach to the Muslim world has backfired. It's far to early to assess what the consequences of that initiative will be, however. I would agree with the commentator on ABC's "This Week" (Ron Brownstein, I think), who argued that Iran was not responding to U.S. pressure but rather is trying to preemptively silence the opposition. The mullahs think they can buy time while they prepare for another challenge to the western world, possibly involving a missiles launch, in an attempt to rally national unity. What many in the West don't understand is that, even among the pro-democracy forces in Iran, there is a strong nationalistic pride and consensus on Iran's right to develop its own strategic military forces.
On a related note, CIA Chief Leon Panetta said that former V.P. Dick Cheney acts as though he wants the Islamic radicals to attack us to validate the Bush administration's position. In that vein, one could be forgiven for believing that Obama wants the fragile Mideast democracy movement to fail to validate its position.
Earlier this month, President Obama made his second major foreign trip, the highlight of which was a major speech in Cairo. He pleaded with the Islamic world for a "new beginning" with the United States, with a humble tone that acknowledged past American transgressions and lingering prejudices. See Washington Post. Some of what he said is accurate, including the need to avoid defining our relationships in terms of our differences. It is true, as he said, that we do share some values, and more importantly, concrete interests. However, much of his speech was quite out of place or proportion to the true nature of the political problems that exist. What Obama fails to grasp, or at least to show he grasps, is that Western culture is very tolerant of diversity and amenable to pragmatic compromise, whereas most Islamic countries are in the grip of a religious orthodoxy that regards free inquiry as treason. In that sense, the vast cultural divide (or "clash of civilizations," as Samuel Huntington put it) is likely to remain a fixture of world politics for years to come.
Nevertheless, Obama remains supremely confident of his ability to convince others of his good intentions. It is clear that he aims to radically reshape global political dynamics by overtly courting the Muslims, staking everything on establishing friendly or at least polite relationships with governments that have been quite hostile or suspicious of us. It is a striking combination of idealism and pragmatism, but where this approach is taking us remains unclear. Obama may yet achieve some diplomatic breakthrough through his immense personal charm and unique pesonal identity, but he needs to make it clearer that he understands where U.S. national interests lie, and that he is committed to upholding them.