Last month, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest a rigged presidential election. Our president was extremely cautious in his initial criticism of the Iranian government’s fierce crackdown against the protestors.
At first, President Barack Obama said that the United States -- given our history in Iran -- should not be “meddling” in the country’s internal affairs.
Obama suggested that the leading opposition candidate, the reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi, might not be that different from the entrenched theocracy’s choice, the incumbent (and winner of the June election) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Finally, as both the crowds in the Iranian streets and violence against them increased over the next several days, Obama conceded that he was “appalled” at the clerics’ repression.
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In defense of the president’s hesitation, some of his supporters argued that our initial neutrality was aimed at not spoiling the administration’s earlier efforts at outreach to Iran’s Islamist regime. We were taking the realistic long view, they added, in which negotiations with the clerics might still curb Iran’s nuclear-weapon aspirations and their support for terrorism.
As Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, put it, the “legitimacy” of the regime was “not the critical issue in terms of our dealings with Iran.”
Perhaps Obama also wishes to avoid former President George W. Bush’s muscular approach in the Middle East, which ended up in costly efforts to foster legitimate constitutional governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, after removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
Unfortunately, Obama’s policy is a lose-lose proposition that will please neither side in Iran. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, isn’t going to suddenly embrace the U.S. because of Obama’s more charismatic approach, much less stop subsidizing terrorists and developing a nuclear arsenal.
For over three decades, the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II administrations all reached out -- both overtly and covertly -- to the Iranian theocracy, with offers of normalizing relations, secret arms deals, back-channel meetings and occasional apologies. But the clerics today are as anti-American as they were in 1979. And they’re still rounding up, killing and torturing dissidents in the same manner that they had consolidated power after the fall of the Shah.
In addition, our belated, tepid criticism of the repressive Iran government may not translate into goodwill from Iranian advocates for freedom -- given our painful silence in the early days of the demonstrations when achieving global support was critical.
And what about other pro- democracy dissidents abroad -- whether in Cuba, the Arab world or Venezuela? Will they still trust that the U.S. supports their efforts to obtain a free society?
Meanwhile, authoritarians in China, North Korea, Russia, the Middle East and South America may draw two unfair, but nevertheless unfortunate conclusions. One, the United States does not much care much what other regimes do to their own people. Two, a new America will overlook almost anything in order just to get along with these authoritarians.
But is the United States at least consistent in its promises not to meddle? Not all the time.
When Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in Israel, the Obama administration made its distaste clear. It also has tried to find ways to isolate Hamid Karzai’s elected government in Afghanistan -- and was initially not happy about the prospects of its re-election.
Most recently, the United States condemned the Honduran military’s arrest of President Manuel Zelaya. The nation’s supreme court had found his efforts to extend his presidential tenure in violation of its constitution, once Zelaya tried to finesse an illegal third term.
In other words, the United States pressures other nations as it pleases -- though strangely now more to lean on friends than to criticize rivals and enemies.
In contrast, had Obama voiced early, consistent and sharp criticism of the Iranian crackdown, the theocracy would have worried that the president’s stature could have galvanized global boycotts and embargos to isolate the theocracy and aid the dissidents. And the reformers in the streets could have become even more confident with a trademark Obama “hope and change” endorsement.
Internal democratic change in Iran is the only peaceful solution to stopping an Iranian bomb, three decades of Iranian- sponsored terrorism and a Middle East arms race. When thousands risked their lives for a better Iran, a better Middle East and a better world, we, the land of the free, simply were not with them.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES