What Obama needs to say and do about Iran
By Christian Brose I have been out of the country the past several days and regret that this is my first post on the absolutely stunning events unfolding in Iran. I was up way past my bedtime last night reading and otherwise catching up on the mountain news, pictures, videos, and Twitter feeds that I ...
I have been out of the country the past several days and regret that this is my first post on the absolutely stunning events unfolding in Iran. I was up way past my bedtime last night reading and otherwise catching up on the mountain news, pictures, videos, and Twitter feeds that I had missed (a task made far easier by the inspired and Stakhanovite blogging of Andrew Sullivan). Taking this all in at once was an overwhelming experience. I’m not sure what the word is for a feeling of exhilaration laced with horror, but that is what I felt, and still feel, watching hundreds of thousands of Iranians try to lift the boot off their faces, while also seeing the bloody price that many are paying for it.
At this point, the validity of the election results seems so shrouded in "serious, substantive, detailed charges of voter fraud" — to quote Steve Hayes — as to make a stolen election a sound assumption until credible, better evidence emerges to the contrary – evidence that is not offered in either of the op-eds by Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty or Flyntt and Hillary Mann Leverett. I mean, would any serious person point to a poll taken in early October as evidence of how a U.S. election would turn out, especially when a majority of respondents said they were "undecided"? Of course not. So let’s not treat Iran any different. The real question, it seems to me (and here I agree with Bill Kristol), is less whether the election was falsified than what to do about it?
Hopefully President Obama will finally begin addressing this question when he speaks at 5 PM Eastern today. I understand his reasons for silence thus far (gather information, hedge bets, preserve options, etc.), but the Obama administration’s failure to utter anything more than, in essence, "we’re monitoring the situation, and it’s not all pleasant" is woefully inadequate and quite embarrassing. A better alternative would start with demonstrating that Obama is willing to spend his immense soft power capital, not just accrue it.
Some have suggested that U.S. statements of support for Iran’s peaceful dissidents would be perceived as meddling and thus counterproductive. Well, not if you write it correctly. Obama should make clear that neither he nor the U.S. government wish to pick winners in Iran’s election. That’s up to the Iranian people, and we support their right to cast their ballots for whomever they wish — and to have those votes counted. No one should be excluded. Just as importantly, Obama should make clear that Iranians are the rightfully proud stewards of a great civilization — one that has deep traditions of democracy and popular sovereignty — and this makes it all the more sad and troubling for the world to watch as members of Iran’s government inflict violence upon fellow Iranians and fellow Muslims for peacefully expressing their desire to have their voices heard. That is not justice.
Obama should wrap his own message in as broad a multilateral package as possible. He should lean heavily on countries to withdraw recognitions of an Ahmadinejad victory and instead push them to issue statements expressing deep concerns about the street violence and reports of voter fraud. He should exert some diplomatic muscle to keep other governments from prematurely jumping off of this line as well. He should instruct Secretary Clinton to coordinate a joint statement, perhaps under the auspices of the G-7, to begin shaping this line into a new international consensus while more information is gathered. The administration should also make a run at getting a U.N. Security Council statement to this effect. Though it’s unlikely that Russia and China will agree to such a statement, Obama should force them to scuttle it publicly. The international principle for action right now should be "do no harm."
Most importantly, Obama needs to make it clear that a continuation or escalation of the violence by the Iranian regime against the Iranian people will diminish the chances of improving relations with the United States. This will give the courageous men and women now in the streets of Iran significant cover to stay there if they think that is the right course of action. It will also send the right signals to other autocratic governments in the Middle East and beyond, all of which are watching to see how willing Obama is to put his money where his mouth was in Cairo — or whether his desire to engage the Iranian government trumps any concern for how it treats its people. No one should believe that other heavy-handed governments aren’t watching our actions intently, and if they sense indifference on Obama’s part to the plight of Iran’s dissidents, no one should expect that things won’t get a whole lot uglier for decent people with audacious hopes of their own in places like Egypt or Syria or Russia.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, and Obama should have done it already. But this evening is better late than never. As for what actions are warranted beyond that, we’ll just have to see how things develop.