The American Response to Iran

Ten days have passed since the Iranian election. And still, many persist in perpetuating the notion that — somehow — America has something to do with it. Part of this is a product of the nature of our media; the need to localize stories, even foreign ones, has framed much of the Iran happenings in terms of their relationship to America. But I suspect it stems more from American importance as the de facto hegemon in global politics. (Notice I didn’t say self-perceived importance; I do think America’s influence is both real and powerful in the global scheme. In a lot of ways, most everything does come back to the U.S. I’m just not sure if the stirrings of revolution in Iran do to the extent many think.)

The usually impeccable Economist even falls into the trap, asking foreign policy giant Joseph Nye in a recent Q&A, “It seems that Barack Obama has been somewhat successful in exporting hope and optimism to Iran. But if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retains power, has Iran’s election shown up the limits of soft power?”

Nye avoids the broader implications of the question and steers the conversation to the subject of Obama’s ability to influence Iranian leadership. But to me, this question would seem to imply that Ahmadinejad’s likely rise to a second term would somehow reflect poorly on “soft power” (carrots rather than sticks, in short) as though Obama had been actively trying to convince the Iranian people to elect Mousavi. Or, for that matter, as though the Iranian people care deeply enough about an American president to alter their domestic political preferences. This may have been intended as a throw-away question to steer Nye to apply soft power to a current topic, but it stood out to me as one of many examples of journalists mistakenly inserting America as a salient issue in the Iranian election.

Many news outlets, including the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor, reported that this election hinged largely on the economy, while still clinging to the idea that somehow the election of Mousavi was a referendum on Ahmadinejad’s aggressive relations with the West. The Monitor also conceded that there’s little reason to expect change in Iran’s nuclear policies with Mousavi at the helm, given that his stint as Prime Minister coincided with the nuclear program’s inception. Furthermore, an Iranian opinion poll (pdf) taken in May showed that 52 percent of Iranians favor the development of nuclear weapons, while a whopping 94 percent want to pursue nuclear energy.

Obama’s Response

Connected to all of this is the notion that Obama needs to take a hardline stance in defense of the aggrieved. The Economist reports:

THE House of Representatives was the site of some fascinating realpolitik today, after Mike Pence, a Republican congressman from Indiana, got Howard Berman, the Democratic chairman of the foreign relations committee, to endorse a resolution expressing solidarity with the Iranian opposition.

The debate over the resolution was schizophrenic: Democrats defended the president’s policy of soft statements about Iran, while Republicans accused the president of being “silent and confused” (Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida), of failing to live up to Ronald Reagan’s example (Dana Rohrabacher of California), of dodging the “moral responsibility to speak out on behalf of the protection of human rights” (Eric Cantor of Virginia) and, in general, of not worrying enough about Iran’s nuclear programme. Democrats, somewhat flustered, defended the president and moved to a vote.

Over at the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer joins his elected brethren in this line of criticism.

And where is our president? Afraid of “meddling.” Afraid to take sides between the head-breaking, women-shackling exporters of terror — and the people in the street yearning to breathe free. This from a president who fancies himself the restorer of America’s moral standing in the world.

On the other side, the primary defense of the president’s lack of chutzpah in this situation has been the idea that his expressing support for Iran could undermine the movement. An Iranian American journalist at The Daily Beast (which I cringe at linking to, because of its tabloid-y style) reports:

My older relatives fretted particularly that any real criticism by the United States would be used as a pretext by Ahmadinejad to blame the protests on “outside enemies,” a reflexive response for the president when dealing with even housing inflation and the rising price of tomatoes.

This seems a particularly salient point when considering the things Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader have been saying of late, via Juan Cole here and here:

Ahmadinejad called the opposition as a bunch of insignificant dirt who try to make the taste of victory bitter to the nation. He also called the western leaders as a bunch of ‘filthy homosexuals.’

Khamenei’s speech on Friday underlined that Iran was under siege from abroad. He implied that Britain and the United States were sponsoring counter-revolutionary fifth columns aimed at overthrowing the regime.

So while there’s certainly evidence backing that particular argument, I think the more important guiding factor in Obama’s restraint is a purely practical one. Ahmadinejad is probably going to win this election, and even if he doesn’t, Obama would do himself no favors by angering the Supreme Leader. These are almost certainly the people he’ll be facing at the negotiating table for the next three plus years.

I’m not saying that a stronger Washington response couldn’t be among the potential desirables in this scenario. But let’s not pretend that Obama’s silence is indefensible or somehow morally reprehensible. For better or worse, morality sometimes takes a back seat to diplomacy. The same considerations do not extend to the media however, and I should say that they’ve done a great job of fulfilling their own responsibilities as human rights advocate. While I think there have been some liberties taken in analyzing the election, overall the media — mainstream and otherwise — have performed superbly despite Iranian interference.

I’ll close with this number from those Iranian opinion polls mentioned earlier: 77 percent favored a system in which the Supreme Leader would be democratically elected. If there’s one conclusion we can definitively reach, it’s that Iran’s people really do like democracy. It’s a shame the country is lacking the institutions that make it sustainable.


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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