Pres. Obama has been coming under a lot of pressure to express a more forthright stand in favor of the pro-Musavi demonstrators in Iran. He is quite right to resist those pressures, for a number of reasons.
Meanwhile, the deep split within the Iranian regime that was dramatically revealed by Rafsanjani’s absence from Khamenei’s sermonizing yesterday raises a whole new set of sobering prospects– for Americans and for everyone else.
The first and most compelling reason why Obama’s stand of non-intervention in Iranian politics is the right one is that this is a core principle of international affairs that goes back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. This principle, remember, underlay the international order in Europe in which liberal democracy had the space to evolve in, in the first place.
Sticking to the principle of non-intervention doesn’t at all preclude Obama or anyone else from expressing a strong preference for non-violence and the rule of law. But it really does preclude our government’s leaders from expressing sympathy for one side or the other in a conflict inside another country.
Especially after eight years of rabid and disastrous George Bush interventionism overseas, restating the principle of non-intervention– and acting in accordance with it– is more necessary than ever.
Secondly, a more “instrumentalist” consideration: It is highly likely that any open expression of sympathy by our president for the pro-Musavi side would backfire. (Update Sun a.m.: See Joe Klein on this, too.: “it seemed clear to me when I was in Iran–and even more clear, given the events of the past few days–that the protesters realize that they have to do this on their own. And that an American endorsement would taint their movement, perhaps fatally.”)
Many Americans like to think that now that we have a new president, and especially after Obama’s great speech in Cairo, Muslims everywhere must suddenly love America. That is absolutely not proven. If there is a deep change in Muslim attitudes to Washington, it will happen over time, and will be informed by Washington’s actions not just our president’s words.
In the GWB era, most of my friends in pro-democracy movements in Muslim countries were quite clear that the loud support that Bush expressed for their aspirations was a “kiss of death” for the movements they hoped to build. That may be changing in the Obama era. But it is far too early to say, yet, that what some people like to call “the Obama effect” has turned things completely around.
In Iran, the situation is further complicated by the involvement of the US government– as started by Bush but also, sadly, continued by Obama– in covert projects to foment dissent inside different parts of the country. And of course also by the tragic record of what happened in Iraq under a US occupation regime that for several years tried to justify its existence primarily in terms of a campaign for “democratization.”
Bottom line here: An open “embrace” by Obama or the US Congress of the pro-Musavi movement is much more likely to backfire than to help Musavi.
Finally, and most importantly, we as the US citizenry need to keep our eye on the main ball in this question of our relationship with Iran.
As Americans, our strongest duty in all this to do what we can to avoid our government getting rushed, by anyone, into a military attack against Iran; and indeed to ensure that our government speedily ramps down the very dangerous degree of tension against Iran that it got locked into over the past 16 years.
We urgently need Washington to sit down the Iranian government in a constructive and broad-ranging negotiation over a number of issues including: Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, the punishing sanctions we have maintained against Iran for many years, and how to coexist within a strategically rebalanced Persian Gulf region over the years ahead.
From this point of view, the present situation of unresolvedness in the leadership struggle in Tehran is quite possibly the worst outcome. For three reasons:
- 1. If there is no single, uncontested authority in Tehran, no-one there can make any strategic-level decisions concerning, or within, a big negotiation with Washington.
2. Instead of the US-Iran negotiation being conducted (or even planned) in an atmosphere of calm and realism on both sides, it will itself become inevitably tangled up with the leadership struggle in Tehran.
3. So long as internal dissension continues inside Tehran, there will be powerful voices in Washington that argue against any negotiations with it.
There is a very significant matter of timing here, too. We know that Israeli PM Netanyahu is eager to have a speedy deadline before which he wants the attempt at negotiation to show success. (And if it’s not met, he will presumably sharply escalate his calls for a military attack.) We also know that Obama has said he wants to get the talks well underway by the end of the year.
Trita Parsi is the only other person I’ve seen who has zeroed in on this crucial issue of timing. He wrote:
- if political paralysis reigns in Iran, valuable time to address the nuclear issue through diplomacy will be lost.
He wrote that, with great prescience, a week ago. Now, a week later, it is quite evident that what is underway inside Iran is a deep split within the core of the regime that will certainly take a long time to heal, and perhaps even to resolve.
As Gary Sick noted about Khamenei’s fateful sermon yesterady — and I’ll quote this in full–
- First, and perhaps more important than the words themselves, was the fact that Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani did not attend. This is extraordinary. Khamene’i and Rafsanjani were fellow revolutionaries in 1978-79. They have been associates – sometimes close colleagues – for more than 50 years. Many believe that Rafsanjani was instrumental in getting Khamene’i his position as Leader. Rafsanjani today heads the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for monitoring the performance of the Leader, among other things. This was possibly the single most fateful speech by Khamene’i in his 20 years as Leader of the Islamic Republic. How could Rafsanjani not attend? Did he simply boycott the event? Was he under house arrest? It probably didn’t help that several of Rafsanjani’s children were arrested in the previous 24 hours. We have never had such a graphic demonstration of political differences within Iran’s ruling elite.
This split within the regime is now so deep that “resolution” of it, and repairing the regime from its after-effects even once it has been resolved– even if that were to happen tomorrow, which it almost certainly will not– will probably take many months, if not a number of years.
A deep split in the heart of a regime that commands considerable capabilities in nuclear technology: That is another big consideration.
The fact of this split itself might well further propel the efforts of those in the regime who want to hasten the “breakout” from a civilian nuclear program to a military nuclear program. As happened in Pakistan, these people might well see this as their best defense against those from outside who want to continue to foment trouble inside their country.
… And meanwhile, the time-period within which the split inside the Iranian regime gets resolved and healed, or doesn’t get resolved and healed, bumps up against the deadline that Netanyahu and his many remaining supporters in the US Congress have established for “resolving” the Iranian nuclear question.
Dangerous months ahead, I think.