As the end of the year grows near, and seemingly everyone has a year’s end top 10, I realized that a “Top Acts of Iranian Defiance of 2009” would be a pretty interesting list. Of course, with such an active year by Iran, there would be lots of great lines to choose from. Perhaps, I’ll gather a good list later, but for the moment I am going to concentrate on the fact that Obama is a disappointment to the world, according to Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Obama’s big F on his Iranian report card comes on the heels of the Iranians dismissing the latest deadline set by the United States to reach a deal on current nuclear enrichment. Clearly, the United States is getting frustrated by the refusal of Iran to submit to the wishes of the West; frustration manifested by the ill-advised passage of a sanctions bill that will do little do bend the will of Iran. In an earlier post, I mused about the probability of a continuation of the status quo leading to a US containment policy reminiscent of the Cold War.
Yet with the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the religious leader of Iran’s opposition movement, some commentators are rethinking engagement and considering the possibility of a Green Revolution. The funeral of Montazeri has been widely used a platform for unrest in Iran, with anti-governmental protests spreading throughout the country. Iran has warned that increasingly violent measures would be taken to prevent further protests, leading to arrests due to the ‘illegal activities.’ Naturally, these threats have led to clashes between the authorities and protesters. The crack-down has also been against opposition leaders, sentencing one, Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, to six years in prison. In Isfahan, the birthplace of Montazari, clashes have resulted in a state of emergency.
While protests by the Iranian opposition are not new, there seems to be a renewed hope in the West, probably aided by the failure of dialogue and sanctions:
The fracturing of the Islamic Republic’s traditional elite, and the persistence and power of Iran’s democratic awakening six months later, make clear that a regime change is under way in Iran–one that is indigenous, sustainable, democratic in spirit, and peaceful in its means. It is the most promising development in the broader Middle East in the past quarter-century. Rather than being viewed as a sideshow, the uprising should be at the core of every policy decision regarding Iran. Western leaders should ask themselves just one question whenever faced with a new set of measures toward Iran: Will they help or hurt the Green Movement?… [President Obama] can press his intelligence agencies to develop further ways to disable and delay the nuclear program through even more creative covert operations. He should ask for a set of credible containment options built around a box of red lines within which the process of democratic reform would have time and space to take irreversible hold. And he might ask himself whom he’d rather greet at the White House in the first visit of an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution: a standard bearer of the Green Movement of 2009 or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Nader Mousavizadeh, a special assistant to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1997 to 2003, seems to believe that it would be more constructive for the United States to focus on democratization, rather than denuclearization. Certainly a democratic Iran would be more amiable on certain issues, but critics point that it would unlikely change its stance on the nuclear issue. However, a democratic Iran would be unlikely to be as hostile to Israel.
So should Obama start to focus on policies that would encourage revolution in Iran? Or should he go further and follow a path of regime change a la George W.? The neo-con influence is clearly not dead :
ALL THESE examples of Iranian hostilities are found in open sources. A strike against Iran, therefore, would neither be preemptive nor preventive. It would fall under the classification of retaliation, in response to the direct and indirect murder of a state’s citizens, the disruption of international peace and security and numerous other internationally recognized norms vis-à-vis interstate relations.
I don’t see Obama repeating the mistakes against which he campaigned. It is difficult to believe that Obama would either engage Iran militarily or even, overtly or covertly, give his blessing to Israel to do so. Domestically, an open anti-Iranian government policy would score points with the neo-con hawks, but drastically hurt Obama and democrats in general in both the upcoming mid-term elections as well as any possible re-election bid by Obama. Furthermore, even American support for an Iranian revolution would hurt the standing of the United States in the Middle East. America’s role as an unbiased mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is already widely dismissed in the Middle East. Fermenting unrest in Iran would hurt Obama’s credibility in Gaza, where the Hamas leaders are known to be friendly with Iran, as well as delegitimize the United States as a credible moderator in the eyes of most Middle Eastern actors. Following a neo-con approach to Iran would strain relations between the United States and Syria, with whom the US is currently trying to foster a working relationship and turn the Lebanon based Hizbullah, and consequently Lebanon in general, away from the West.
Most likely, Obama will concentrate on rhetoric and hope in dealing with the Iranians. He certainly won’t condemn the unrest in Iran and is most likely cheering for the opposition there. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), due to the delicate circumstances in the region, that may be all he can do.
Some footage of the Iranian protests, from Salon:
Photo from AP