The Bystander


15th July 2009

In the affairs of states, lessons are often learned too late or too well. Faced with unexpected crises and unwelcome demands for prompt decision-making, governments think by analogy. And they are invariably keen to demonstrate that they have learned from their–or, more conveniently, their predecessors’–mistakes.

The last time a Democrat occupied the White House, an inherited humanitarian mission in Somalia turned to disaster in the alleys of Mogadishu. An important lesson had to be learned: Committing troops to African conflicts of little strategic import to the United States was no longer on the table. And so came to pass a genocide in Rwanda–during which there is no question that a “Somalia effect” darkened the considerations of every U.S. and U.N. official who weighed what kind of response would be possible.

So Rwanda would pay the price for Somalia. Conversely, Bosnia–very late and highly imperfectly–benefited from an intervention prompted in part by the shame of Rwanda. After Bosnia, the international community concluded that another Balkan genocide at the hands of Milosevic would not stand, and so, Kosovo was freed from his murderous grip. From there, in the frightened strategic environment after September 11, it was not so great a leap to Baghdad and the removal of its tyrant.

And now, to Tehran in June 2009 and its remarkable Green Revolution. For the Obama administration, which rose to power on the president’s early opposition to the Iraq war, there would be no question of learning the lessons of Iraq too late. The Bush administration’s freedom agenda, executed with such incompetence, would be dismissed in favor of a more nuanced engagement with a complex world. The lessons of Iraq would be married to the lessons of U.S.-Iranian relations, in particular the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup against the secular nationalist Mohammad Mossadegh, surely among the most disastrous strategic errors committed by the United States.

The focus, therefore, was on avoiding the perception of “meddling” at all costs in order to deny the regime hardliners a convenient scapegoat for the challenge posed in the streets. And yet, in this abundance of caution–an overlearning of the twin lessons, one might say–an opportunity to provide legitimate support to the popular movement when it mattered most was lost. And, just as crucially, a signal was sent to those very same hardliners that the United States’s eagerness to negotiate would override its solidarity with the protesters.

In Washington, the debate quickly descended along familiar lines into an extraordinarily parochial and self-involved exchange of accusations between liberals and neoconservatives. That there are few lessons to be learned from the cheerleaders of the Iraq war–and even fewer from those on the Republican right desperate to find a chink in the president’s still-formidable armor–goes without saying. But that should not be the end of strategic thinking about Iran; rather, it should be the beginning.

It seems likely that Obama had his own doubts about the degree of reticence he could live with. Having started meekly with an early warning that the “world is watching,” the administration ratcheted up its rhetoric just as the resistance was breaking on June 21, when it said that the United States would “bear witness.” By June 23, the president stated he was “appalled and outraged, ” and even said that the government in Tehran “must govern through consent and not coercion.”

While the president demonstrated a refreshing ability to adapt his position, his last forthright statement of principle was reminiscent of a final encore to an emptying concert hall. The color green is receding from the streets of Tehran, the young protestors are going into hiding, and the leaders of the opposition are being comprehensively arrested. A prisoner of conventional thinking on Iran, the most popular American president in a generation was effectively rolled by a cartel of aging, unelected theocrats into believing that a strong statement of support for democracy could be manipulated into an imperialist intervention. Why Obama believed that the Iranian people would fail to distinguish 1953 from 2009–or even George W. Bush from Barack Hussein Obama–remains a mystery. Not all “meddling” is equal, and because an American president once acted to thwart Iran’s popular will does not mean that this president cannot speak out in its defense. Alas, this was a loss of nerve with likely dire consequences.

First, a movement for greater pluralism and the rule of law that was manifestly to the advantage of the United States has been silenced. Second, an emboldened hardline leadership will likely present even greater conditions for meeting with the United States and, at those negotiations, prove more reluctant still to seek common ground. Were this a matter simply for Iran, or for U.S.-Iranian relations, it would be bad enough. But there is a third, more ominous threat looming on the horizon–an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations.

There is no serious alternative to an adversarial engagement with Iran that includes all key bilateral issues, beginning with areas of common interest and ending with the nuclear question. But, by allowing the regime to dictate the lessons of 1953, and honoring too little and too late the people’s movement of June 2009, the president has made an exceedingly difficult task all the harder for himself. An outstretched hand needs to be directed by a head held high–confident in its own principles and values, responsive to the aspirations of the Iranian people, and signaling to the regime that two can play the game of tough-minded diplomacy.

Above my father’s desk hangs a portrait of my grandfather, posing somberly in the dress uniform of a justice of Iran’s Supreme Court. A religiously observant but politically secular nationalist politician, newspaper editor, and Supreme Court justice before becoming Minister of Justice, he was emblematic of Iran’s fitful struggle for modernity. He would have been the first to concede the contradictions and limitations of the achievements of his era; he himself was intermittently imprisoned for opposing Reza Shah’s authoritarian excesses.

Still, over the past 30 years’ traumatic rule of the Islamic Republic–with its wars, torture chambers, reaction, and repression–his portrait served as an intimate reminder of another Iran, past and perhaps future. And the inscription at the bottom of the painting, stating that it was a gift from the Jewish community of Iran in thanks for his efforts to secure equal rights for its members, was a quiet rebuke to the buffoonish hostility to the Jewish state that has helped define the current regime.

With its improvised idealism and victory signs, and its fearless, still unbelievable chants of “marg bar diktator” echoing down Tehran’s boulevards, this was an unprecedented moment in Iranian history. And yet, I suspect my grandfather would recognize in the past week’s democratic defiance a kindred spirit of individual rights and freedom from arbitrary justice. If, as it seems for now, this shall remain a dream deferred, it nonetheless has deep roots in Iran’s century-long constitutional struggle.

A day will come when the leadership of Iran will reflect the desire of the vast majority of its citizens for greater openness and freedom. And by then, it will likely matter a great deal less whether the power across the ocean is friend or foe, true to its ideals or coolly timid, a force in the Middle East or a mere bystander to events.

For now, the Obama administration–cautious, aloof, un-dogmatic, and un-meddling–has born successful “witness” to the brief life and brutal death of Iran’s Green Revolution. The “Iraq effect” has claimed the Obama era’s first victim, though likely not its last.


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