Obama’s Iran dilemma
By Christian Brose President Obama’s opening statement on Iran in today’s presser was a welcome increase in his support for Iranian aspirations and condemnation of the government that’s thwarting them. But as the president struggled with the questions that followed — about whether his stated desire to engage with the Iran’s rulers was still viable, ...
President Obama’s opening statement on Iran in today’s presser was a welcome increase in his support for Iranian aspirations and condemnation of the government that’s thwarting them. But as the president struggled with the questions that followed — about whether his stated desire to engage with the Iran’s rulers was still viable, whether they would bear any consequences for trouncing the international norms that Obama speaks of so highly, and whether he would accept the election of Ahmadinejad when so many Iranians clearly don’t — it was increasingly clear that Obama’s desire to hedge his bets on Iran has become untenable. This is Obama’s Iran dilemma.
Hedging, after all, has been the president’s strategy thus far: He has tried (cautiously of late, but more strenuously today) to voice support for the aspirations of Iran’s people and criticism of the regime’s violence against them; at the same time, he has tried to preserve his diplomatic flexibility in the event that the street protests lead to no substantive changes in Iran’s current leadership or its foreign policy. But with each day that Iran’s election stand-off continues, with each day that violence against Iranians continues (and increases), and with each day that the Iranian government further delegitimizes itself in the eyes of an ever-growing number of its people, Obama’s ability to hedge is vanishing.
If one assumes the Iranian regime will survive this unrest, weakened but basically unchanged (and sadly, I think that assumption is right in the short term), then Tehran will claim that any support for Iran’s people is evidence of a U.S. regime change policy and use it as an excuse to shun talks with Obama. And yet, if Obama mutes his support for Iranian demands for justice in the aftermath of this uprising in an effort to engage with the country’s deeply discredited leadership, he risks landing America (once again) on the wrong side of Iranian history.
It’s worth noting what many Iranians themselves are saying. Yes, high-profile dissidents like Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji, as well as other Iranians, have urged Obama not to do or say anything that would unwittingly strengthen Iran’s ruling elites. But for much the same reason, I imagine, they and other Iranians have also been equally outspoken in urging Obama not to deal with Ahmadinejad and his government — or at least not to do anything that undercuts the desires of Iran’s people for democracy and human rights.
Consider this from Ganji:
The Iranian people are saying the Ahmadinejad government is a coup d’etat government. They’re asking that no government accept the legitimacy of his government. This is what most people want, for no government to work with the Ahmadinejad government.
Or this question that the indefatigable Nico Pitney asked Obama today on behalf of one of his Iranian readers:
Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn’t that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working to achieve?
Or this plea from an Iranian student identified as Mohammad speaking yesterday to CNN:
Americans, European Union, international community, this government is not definitely — is definitely not elected by the majority of Iranians. So it’s illegal. Do not recognize it. Stop trading with them. Impose much more sanctions against them.
My message … to the international community, especially I’m addressing President Obama directly — how can a government that doesn’t recognize its people’s rights and represses them brutally and mercilessly have nuclear activities? This government is a huge threat to global peace. Will a wise man give a sharp dagger to an insane person? We need your help, international community. Don’t leave us alone.
If the Ahmadinejad government hangs on (which it seems quite likely that it will), and if Obama remains committed to engaging with it (which he has given every indication that he does), then he only has one option, as I see it, of not leaving Iran’s people feeling that America is selling out their aspirations: Obama must make it clear that when he and his administration finally do sit down with Iran’s discredited leadership, they will not only raise the nuclear issue, but also Iran’s abuses of its citizens’ human rights, the fate of Iran’s political prisoners, and the need for democratic reforms — and what’s more, America will insist on progress on all these fronts, because we have seen that this is what the Iranian people want.
Iran’s leadership would surely bristle at this, and they’ll probably refuse to enter into talks unless issues like human rights and democracy are dropped from the agenda. That will heighten Obama’s dilemma. He ran for president pledging to engage Iran without preconditions. He won that debate, and the election. Now, in light of the dramatically changed (and still changing) circumstances inside Iran, the new debate is whether America will allow Iran’s rulers to get away with putting preconditions on their engagement with us.
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