Happy “Pupil’s Day”
Today is the 30th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, an event that did as much as any other to seal Iranian-American acrimony over the past three decades. In a rather new development, however, the “Green Movement” chose to commemorate “Pupil’s Day” (the Iranian name for this anniversary) with various ...
Today is the 30th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, an event that did as much as any other to seal Iranian-American acrimony over the past three decades. In a rather new development, however, the “Green Movement” chose to commemorate “Pupil’s Day” (the Iranian name for this anniversary) with various anti-government demonstrations. You can follow some of the action on Andrew Sullivan’s blog here.
As one would expect, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini gave a combative speech commemorating the anniversary, specifically condemning the United States for its “arrogant” interference in Iranian affairs and casting doubt on Obama’s recent efforts to start a dialogue. He acknowledged that Obama “has said nice things,” but went to criticize the Administration’s overall approach. Money quote:
On the face of things they say let us negotiate. But alongside this they threaten us and say that if these negotiations do no reach a desirable result they will do this and that. Do you call this negotiation? This is like the relationship between a wolf and a lamb …
I’d question the characterization of Iran as a “lamb,” but I think this statement (and indeed, the whole speech) demonstrates how hard it is to unwind the spiral of suspicion between Washington and Iran. Given the long record of enmity, and each side’s tendency to view the other’s behavior as both hostile and duplicitous, even well-intended gestures of accommodation are likely to be seen as insincere or even deceitful, as a trick intended to take advantage. Any diplomatic misstep merely confirms the sense of suspicion and resentment on both sides, and missteps are probably unavoidable. If this effort is going to succeed, it will take at least as much patience as we are being asked to exhibit vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, Obama’s own remarks on this occasion aren’t going to help, at least not in the short term. Although he reiterated his desire “to move beyond the past,” some of his comments are bound to reinforce Iranian suspicions instead of mollifying them. He said that “we do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs,” which most Iranians would regard as a bald-faced lie. And they would be right, given recent revelations of covert U.S. programs to destabilize the Iranian regime. He also said “we have recognized Iran’s international right to peaceful nuclear power.” He’s technically correct, insofar as the Western powers have offered to supply Iran’s reactors with fuel produced outside the country. But to Iran, our insistence that Iran give up enrichment looks like an attempt to keep them dependent on U.S. benevolence and as a denial of Iran’s rights under the NPT.
Obama also reiterated America’s “great respect for the people of Iran” and said “the world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice, and their courageous pursuit of universal rights” (my emphasis). These statements can only be interpreted as an appeal to the Iranian people over the heads of the clerical regime, and as a statement of solidarity with the Green Movement. As such, it is bound to make the government of Iran — with whom the United States is trying to negotiate — even more suspicious of U.S. intentions.
One could argue that Obama is playing the long game here; that he is betting that the regime is unsteady, that the Green Movement is the wave of the future, and that the United States wouldn’t be able to cut a deal with the clerics in any case. In this interpretation, he’s willing to jeopardize or even scuttle a possible short-term deal in order to cultivate support among the forces he thinks will eventually triumph.
If that is what he’s doing, it is a huge gamble. Authoritarian regimes do not normally collapse according to a timetable convenient to those in Washington; instead, they show an annoying tendency to hang on far longer than outsiders hope or expect. If statements like this help derail the broader international effort to convince Iran to forego nuclear weapons and the clerics remain in charge, then Obama will have done no better than Bush and will face growing pressure for military action. And perhaps it is worth remembering that Mir Hossein Moussavi supports the nuclear program too, and has been condemning Ahmadinejad for being too forthcoming in the provisional nuclear deal whose fate is now uncertain.
Of course, these glitches in Obama’s statement could also be a sign of muddled thinking in the White House or the State Department, which would hardly be surprising in light of some other recent stumbles.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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