Supporting Iranian Freedom

In his column this morning David Brooks chides President Obama gently:

Many of us have been dissatisfied with the legalistic calibrations of the Obama administration’s response to Iran, which have been disproportionate to the sweeping events there. We’ve been rooting for the politicians in the administration, like Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have been working for a more sincere and heartfelt response.

But the comments of the first few days are not that important. What’s important is that the Obama administration understands the scope of what is happening. And on the big issue, my understanding is that the administration has it exactly right.

The core lesson of these events is that the Iranian regime is fragile at the core. Like all autocratic regimes, it has become rigid, paranoid, insular, insecure, impulsive, clumsy and illegitimate. The people running the regime know it, which is why the Revolutionary Guard is seeking to consolidate power into a small, rigid, insulated circle. The Iranians on the streets know it. The world knows it.

From now on, the central issue of Iran-Western relations won’t be the nuclear program. The regime is more fragile than the program. The regime is more likely to go away than the program.

He concludes:

Recently, many people thought it was clever to say that elections on their own don’t make democracies. But election campaigns stoke the mind and fraudulent elections outrage the soul. The Iranian elections have stirred a whirlwind that will lead, someday, to the regime’s collapse. Hastening that day is now the central goal.

I’m not as sanguine as Brooks is. While I support the Iranian people in their legitimate aspirations for freedom, it’s not completely clear to me that’s the direction in which a new Iranian revolution founded on Mir Hossein Mousavi would lead. There are revolutions and there are revolutions.

Americans had a very good idea of where their revolution, inspired by men like Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, would lead 300 years ago. They’d made little secret of their views and their views favored freedom.

Russia, contrariwise, has seen four governments in a century: the Tsar’s, the Provisional Government that followed the February Revolution, Lenin’s as it emerged after the October Revolution of 1917, and the present government. Today’s Russian government may be better than the Tsar’s (the matter might be disputed) but it’s not a century better. But, again, it’s no surprise. Lenin was quite clear in his views and his views were not liberal.

If the Iranian people were surprised by the Khomeinist government that was put in place after the Shah was ousted thirty years ago, it can only be because they hadn’t been paying attention. Ruhollah Khomeini, too, had made his views quite clear, bizarre as they might have been to most Westerners. He was definitely not a liberal.

Mousavi was a close associate of Khomeini’s and he has established a substantial public record over the last thirty years. He is rather clearly not a liberal, either.

We can’t be certain what sort of government might emerge if a new Iranian revolution materializes from the demonstrations that are going on in Tehran right now. While I believe, again, that we should be enthusiastic in our support for freedom for the Iranian people, we need to meld that with caution lest we support what’s just a different group of oppressors.

FILED UNDER: General,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    I think we should support the aspirations of the protestors in an historical fashion by publicly expressing the “profound hope that the people of Iran will once again enjoy a democratic government in the spirit of the Iranian constitution of 1906.” This removes the United States from supporting or appearing to support a faction, plays to Iranian pride in its constitutional revolution, and puts the mullahs on the wrong side of Iran’s own history.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Exactly the sort of thing I’m thinking of, PD.

  3. I think we should keep our official mouths shut and stay officially out of it. For now.

    Something much more profound than statements from the US government is happening: human to human diplomacy. The American people are reaching out to the Iranian people, offering unremarked technical assistance and spreading the news, keeping the story alive. The protesters in the streets have no question where the American people stand.

    I don’t think there is anything good that comes from more definite statements from Obama. I think he’s got it just right so far. Nothing the USG can say or do right now can help, but we can definitely hurt. We need to keep our goals in mind, avoid our usual solipsism, and trust the people of Iran and the people of the west.

    On the matter of a crackdown, I watch for tanks. The Rev Guard has some, the army has more. Will the tanks go into the streets? I think that’s the big question.

    What do we get when the dust settles? No one knows.

  4. Herb says:

    That’s one thing that has been haunting me this whole week. What if Mousavi is no better than Ahmadinejad?

    I’ve read that Mousavi is fully supportive of a nuclear Iran, as indeed are many of these protesters. And let’s be real: Mousavi has more loyalty toward Hezbollah than the West.

    Seems to me the decision over there is between “Bad” and “Worse,” and, I’m sorry…but there’s no way I’m going to get as excited as some ( -cough- Andrew Sullivan) over that choice.

    Thinking of Mousavi as “our guy in Tehran” is only going to get us in trouble. He’s quite simply…not.

  5. Chris Davis says:

    Here is my argument…I understand your point on why you agree with the Obama administration on their stance, or lack thereof, concerning the Iranian election…My point is that we should be standing up for freedom. I am NOT a supporter of Islamic fundamentalism…I am NOT a supporter of Iran’s apparent ambition to develop nuclear weapons. I have absolutely no reason to believe that any other leader the people could elect would be any less radical than Amahdenijad. What I am a supporter of is the Iranian citizens’ right to choose who that leader is. If the leader is radical, we’ll deal with that…If Iran continues nuclear proliferation, we’ll deal with that as well…That being said, the issue that most people want addressed is freedom…The citizens should have the right to choose…That, and that alone, is what most want President Obama to champion…This is what we are NOT hearing…Remaining silent isn’t supporting freedom or democracy…

  6. I think you are looking at historical hindsight to say we had a good idea where we were taking our revolution 200+ years ago. Is it really so hard to imagine Washington being crowned? Does the federalist debate (on going to this day) between Hamilton and Jefferson indicate to you that they were on the same page?
    Freedom was favored, but the devil is in the details and there were a lot of details to work through.

    Imagine the Iranian government falling. Is it to hard to see competing war lords being the result? I can imagine a new government coming in, trading the nuclear program for some western help, but keeping the same level of animosity to Israel and thus support for Hezbollah. I can also imagine them cutting support. In short, there are a lot of ways for this to settle out.

    One potentially positive step would be even if the new government was “as bad as the old”, because of the shift in the base of support, access to the west would likely be increased. That might enable a change in the future toward ‘freedom’.

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    PD –

    I think we should support the aspirations of the protestors in an historical fashion by publicly expressing the “profound hope that the people of Iran will once again enjoy a democratic government in the spirit of the Iranian constitution of 1906.”

    Given that the United States is one of the reasons why Iranians no longer enjoy the Constitution of 1906, I think that such a statement would make things profoundly worse.

  8. I’m with Alex.

    Someone please explain to me how more statements from the USG help the demonstrators.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    I disagree with the notion that the United States caused the disposition of Mosaddeq, but assuming that the United States did, what is the point of apologizing for it if contrition is not made?

    The 1906 Constitution was modified after Mosaddeq was kicked out, but was terminated by the 1979 revolution, in favor of a Constitution premised on the ideology that the people had shown that they could not handle their Constitution and needed to be placed under the guardianship of the religious authorities.

    Inquiring minds would want to know who the clerics supported in 1953.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    It’s called soft power, michael.

  11. Phil Smith says:

    Let’s be honest here. Michael, Alex, and the rest of the water-carriers will continue arguing that no further statement need be made by Obama – right up to the minute that he does. At that point they’ll say the timing is perfect, and the statement he makes is perfect.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    That’s right Phil, me and my fellow water carriers Kissinger, Lugar, Ricks and a Iranian Nobel peace prize winner.

    I note that you had no answer for my simple question.

  13. Alex Knapp says:

    I disagree with the notion that the United States caused the disposition of Mosaddeq, but assuming that the United States did, what is the point of apologizing for it if contrition is not made?

    That would involve apologizing first, no? We haven’t done that. And this is a bad time to do it.

    Let’s be honest here. Michael, Alex, and the rest of the water-carriers will continue arguing that no further statement need be made by Obama – right up to the minute that he does. At that point they’ll say the timing is perfect, and the statement he makes is perfect.

    (citation needed) Personally, I think that Obama has said too much already.

  14. Michael says:

    I think the big question about a Moussavi revolution would be whether of not he keeps the institutions of Supreme Leader and Guardian Council. Does he view those undemocratic institutions as the cause of the corruption, or just the individuals holding the seats?

    Even if Moussavi’s policies are identical to the current administration’s, an Iran without a Supreme Leader and Guardian council will be a very different Iran. Especially when candidates in the next election don’t have to gain the approval of the theocracy.

  15. Michael says:

    Is it really so hard to imagine Washington being crowned?

    Um, yes.

  16. PD Shaw says:

    Albright apologized for America’s role in the 1953 overthrow of Mossadeq in 2000. Obama mentioned U.S. responsibility in Cairo recently as well.

  17. Phil Smith says:

    No, Michael, I didn’t bother. The answer is that Obama’s failure to at a minimum condemn or even bemoan that the basiji are committing murder against their fellow-citizens tells the regime loud and clear that they don’t need to be concerned about us. It emboldens their response in this instance, and will have widening repercussions down the road.

    You’re a Kissinger fan?

  18. Alex Knapp says:

    PD –

    I stand corrected. I did not know that, thanks.

    Phil –

    What can the USG do in this situation? Are we going to send in troops? No. Can we apply sanctions? We already don’t trade with Iran. Can we cut off diplomatic ties with them? We don’t have any.

    The United States can’t make any credible threats against the regime. Any statements by Obama to the contrary would be empty and the regime knows that.

  19. The Strategic MC says:

    “Inquiring minds would want to know who the clerics supported in 1953.”

    Hint: It wasn’t Mosaddeq.

  20. Phil Smith says:

    The United States can’t make any credible threats against the regime. Any statements by Obama to the contrary would be empty and the regime knows that.

    Alex, I actually agree with you here. I don’t think Obama needs to take a stance on the outcome of the election. I wouldn’t want him to make any threats. However, once the protests started (without our help, mind you) and the basiji started cracking heads, firing into unarmed crowds, and pulling students out of their beds and beating and even murdering them, it is painfully obvious that the leader of the goddam free world has a moral obligation to say “That shit right there? That really sucks.” It costs us nothing to object to the brutality. Nothing. His failure to do so is moral cowardice, and the apologetics are also.

  21. Alex Knapp says:

    it is painfully obvious that the leader of the goddam free world has a moral obligation to say “That shit right there? That really sucks.”

    Why? What good would it do, apart from making us feel good?

    There’s a wisdom in restraint here.

  22. Phil Smith says:

    Alex, there’s wisdom is a certain level of restraint. But in actual point of fact, Obama has stated that there’s no difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. To us, maybe there isn’t. But that statement isn’t actually restrained. It’s actually fairly blunt.

    To the Iranian protestors, there’s enough of a difference to die for. Obama’s told them that they are fools for believing that. They’ve noticed.

    So what good would it do to just say “Hey, quit beating those kids”? Well, we have literally nothing to lose with the current regime. As you’ve already noted, we have no leverage with them. We’re unlikely to gain any by this shameful display. In fact, they have publically stated that we’re behind the protests anyway. You might want to take a note of that – the US really does get the blame for just about everything that goes wrong, regardless of whether we had anything to do with it or not. So if Ahmadinejad wins, we’re not in any worse position than we were before.

    But if, by what would admittedly be a long shot, Mousavi wins (or noting the Russian Revolution example noted in the main post, a third as yet unheard from party wins in a bloodless coup eight months from now), our silence will be taken as a quite accurate assessment of our commitment to freedom. And all we need to do – all they even want – is for the leader of the birthplace of modern democracy to take notice of their struggle.

    I give up, though. If you cannot see it, it’s beyond my rhetorical capabilities to make you see it. I still say that has more to do with your vision than it does with the view.

  23. Michael says:

    But if, by what would admittedly be a long shot, Mousavi wins (or noting the Russian Revolution example noted in the main post, a third as yet unheard from party wins in a bloodless coup eight months from now), our silence will be taken as a quite accurate assessment of our commitment to freedom.

    While I can agree with your sentiment, you have no real reason to believe that Mousavi got more than 50% of the vote either.

  24. Phil Smith says:

    you have no real reason to believe that Mousavi got more than 50% of the vote either.

    Nor have I made any claims about the election results. I will now: there is no way that tens of millions of hand-written ballots were counted and tabulated within mere hours of the polls closing. The fact that the stated election results are a complete fraud is without doubt.

  25. Michael says:

    The fact that the stated election results are a complete fraud is without doubt.

    Yes, but that knowledge doesn’t even tell us that Ahmedinijad didn’t have the support of the majority, let alone that Mousavi did. If your position is that the will of the people should be followed, I agree with you. If your position is that Mousavi winning accomplishes that, then we disagree.

  26. Phil:

    Try not to look at this through neo-con blinders.

    But in actual point of fact, Obama has stated that there’s no difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi.

    If you’re Mousavi does this make you sad or relieved? Answer: relieved. You think Moussavi wants Mr. Obama throwing his arms around him? Or do you think maybe Moussavi wants a nice wide distance between himself and the Great Satan?

    Well, we have literally nothing to lose with the current regime.

    It’s not about the current regime. It’s about cutting this revolution off at the knees. How in god’s name would it help the protesters for us to publicly identify with them?

    And all we need to do – all they even want – is for the leader of the birthplace of modern democracy to take notice of their struggle.

    Show me any evidence that Moussavi or anyone else in the leadership of the protesters wants our help. I don’t even see it in tweets. The last thing any of them want is us sticking our noses in.

    Conservatives need to stop acting like children. This is a grown-up business. And your desire to take shots at Obama really ought to take a back seat to supporting the protesters in the streets.

  27. Phil Smith says:

    My position is that you don’t shoot unarmed protesters. The fact that the initial announcement of the vote totals could not have been based on an actual count is just gravy. The Iranian people got screwed, one way or the other, and our president and his supporters haven’t the balls to merely say “please don’t shoot those unarmed protesters”. Instead, you’d rather speculate on who really got the most votes that we know for a fact were not even counted prior to being announced. I have no brief for that discussion.

  28. Alex Knapp says:

    But if, by what would admittedly be a long shot, Mousavi wins (or noting the Russian Revolution example noted in the main post, a third as yet unheard from party wins in a bloodless coup eight months from now), our silence will be taken as a quite accurate assessment of our commitment to freedom. And all we need to do – all they even want – is for the leader of the birthplace of modern democracy to take notice of their struggle.

    Phil, do you have any evidence whatsoever that this is the opinion of the majority of the protesters in Iran? Because everything I’ve seen indicates that the Iranian protesters would prefer no involvement at all from the United States.

  29. Phil Smith says:

    “Everything you’ve seen” is dated. Before the thuggery started, they wanted us to keep quiet. After they started getting shot at, they started asking why we were silent. But nobody’s taken a poll, Alex, so nobody knows or has any “evidence” what the “majority of Iranians” thinks, least of all you.

  30. PD Shaw says:

    But nobody’s taken a poll, Alex, so nobody knows or has any “evidence” what the “majority of Iranians” thinks, least of all you.

    Excellent idea, let’s take a vote.

    The reality is that the United States cannot be unengaged from this. For one thing, there is the Voice of America, the State Department action on twitter, and the Western media in general. There is the nearly unanimous House resolution today, condemning the unfair elections. Obama can’t be silent; the media asks questions. Non comments can be construed as support for one side or the other. (For example, British and French silence at certain points during the Civil War was deemed to be tacit support for the Confederacy)

    There are three possibilities here (in descending order of likelihood): Khamenei’s choice of President prevails, Mousavi somehow prevails, or the regime is overthrown. The overthrow of the mullahs would be one of the most significant game changers in the Middle East in over a generation. Supporting such an outcome without prejudicing the more likely events, is difficult, but not impossible. (see first comment) Supporting abstract principles within Iran’s own historical traditions is preferable to the alternative view that the United States doesn’t care about Iranian aspirations.

  31. PD Shaw says:

    To the general point: I think a lot of Iranians protesting would like world support, including U.S. support, but don’t want to be labeled as stooges of foreign powers.

  32. Non comments can be construed as support for one side or the other. (For example, British and French silence at certain points during the Civil War was deemed to be tacit support for the Confederacy)

    So because a non-comment can be misconstrued we should make comments that can be distorted. Good, clear thinking there.

    By the way, British and French silence wasn’t the problem in the Civil War, it was the open support of major industrialists and members of parliament in favor of King Cotton.

    The threatened intervention of the Brits and French did nothing to help the Confederates but managed to irritate LIncoln.

    . . . the alternative view that the United States doesn’t care about Iranian aspirations.

    I’ll let Peggy Noonan respond:

    To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous. The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week. John McCain and others went quite crazy insisting President Obama declare whose side America was on, as if the world doesn’t know whose side America is on. “In the cause of freedom, America cannot be neutral,” said Rep. Mike Pence. Who says it’s neutral?

    This was Aggressive Political Solipsism at work: Always exploit events to show you love freedom more than the other guy, always make someone else’s delicate drama your excuse for a thumping curtain speech.

  33. An Interested Party says:

    Wow, who knew Peggy Noonan was against drama queens? I mean, considering who she previously supported…but she’s definitely right on this issue…we had enough of that over the past 8 years…it is time to be a little more sensible about things…

  34. PD Shaw says:

    My civil war analogy was to British and French statements of neutrality following Fort Sumter, which caused Secretary of State to swear and rage “like a caged tiger” for what was seen in the North and South as overt encouragement of the rebellion. It may not seem rational to some, but that is the history.