The Blog

No Democracy Agenda Here

A generation of Iranian reformers is being brushed aside by the leader of the free world.

12:00 AM, Jun 18, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Earlier this week we began to see the stirrings of a second Iranian revolution, as hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iranians defied a government ban to publicly protest what appeared to be a rigged presidential election. Despite the regime's often times violent crackdown, the protests have continued all week and thousands of marchers are expected to converge today in Tehran.

What a breathtaking reversal: The original Iranian revolution, in 1979, marked the political triumph of Islamic radicalism. It was fiercely anti-American and anti-Western. It caught the hapless administration of Jimmy Carter off guard.

This latest political crisis, led by a new generation of young Iranians, is significantly pro-American and pro-Western. It signals widespread disgust with the regime and its culture of religious hypocrisy, repression, and extremism. It also has taken the Obama administration by complete surprise. The tragedy of this moment is that a generation of Iranian reformers is being brushed aside by the leader of the free world.

Three days after the hastily announced victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Obama belatedly expressed his "deep concerns" about the results--but not much else. His follow-up remarks on Tuesday were even more ambivalent: "Now, it's not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling . . . in Iranian elections." Unlike any of his predecessors, this American president believes that publicly siding with democratic reformers against a theocratic dictatorship is the moral equivalent of "meddling" in a nation's internal affairs. That must be music in the ears of every hardline mullah in Tehran.

Never mind that Mir Hussein Moussavi, the defeated opposition candidate, has called for a mass rally today to protest what he labels an "astonishing charade." Not to worry that protesters have been shot, over 100 opposition figures arrested, websites blocked, and international journalists detained or expelled. Forget the fact that the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's most senior dissident cleric, has denounced the regime as having "no political or religious legitimacy" and that "no sound mind" would accept the election results.

Obama had a mind to swallow the results from the outset, mostly because of his eagerness for direct talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The administration does not want to antagonize president Ahmadinejad, declared the winner in Friday's election with 63 percent of the votes. Left unexplained is how a posture of blinking at election fraud and government-sponsored thuggery will incline the notoriously belligerent Ahmadinejad toward negotiations. The Obama strategy already is proving feckless: Iran has just accused the United States of, yes, intervening in its election.

We don't know whether a victory for Moussavi, a former prime minister with a record as a hardliner and apologist for terrorism, would produce a more moderate regime in Tehran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retains ultimate power, backed by the dreaded Revolutionary Guard, the nation's elite military force. Yet Moussavi campaigned openly with his wife, a former chancellor of Alzahra University, suggesting he would loosen restrictions against women in Iranian society. He accused Ahmadinejad of pushing Iran toward dictatorship. He derided the president's foreign policy for its "adventurism," "illusionism," "exhibitionism," and "extremism." He even took Ahmadinejad to task for his holocaust denial.

President Obama is calculating that he can, with the sheer force of his personality, convert Iran's radicals to a more moderate political theology. This is liberal hubris. It prevents team Obama from believing that the best hope of discouraging Iran from developing nuclear weapons is to support political reform from within--to use the soft power of his bully pulpit to give hope and encouragement to the millions of Iranians who long for a more humane and democratic government. Instead, he offered this bit of rhetorical pabulum: "I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was."

When Ronald Reagan addressed the communist crackdown on Solidarity, the Polish trade union, he avoided bellicose threats. He did not warn of military intervention. Yet he left no doubt about his political and moral sympathies. "The Polish nation, speaking through Solidarity, has provided one of the brightest, bravest moments of modern history," he said in December 1981. "The torch of liberty is hot. It warms those who hold it high. It burns those who try to extinguish it." As Solidarity leaders such as Lech Walesa have testified, Reagan's unambiguous support was crucial to the democratic opposition in Poland.

Yet the usually loquacious Obama has remained tongue-tied during this crisis in Iran--what surely represents one of its brightest and bravest moments in a generation. His reticence suggests two things about his administration. First, the Obama White House fails to grasp the enduring importance, and appeal, of America's democratic example. They are caught up in self-serving polling data about global anti-Americanism. Stop believing in America as the "last best hope" of democratic reformers and you stop lending them moral and political support.

Second, Obama's indifference toward Iran's protest movement reveals a foreign policy guided by raw political realism: The assumption that the character of regimes matters far less than their so-called national interests. Under this view, the goal is not regime change--not even through peaceful, democratic means--but rather smart diplomacy and soft power. Harvard University's Joseph Nye once gushed at the prospect of an Obama White House cleverly engaging the world: "It is difficult to think of any single act that would do more to restore America's soft power than the election of Obama to the presidency."

It is a bewildering abdication of soft power which refuses to peacefully extol America's democratic ideals. It is a crude and bizarre kind of realism that keeps mute while the democratic aspirations of millions are trampled by despotic rule. It is time Barack Obama tried explaining his "tough-minded" diplomacy to the young protestors on the streets of Tehran. They can be seen in the thousands, risking their careers, maybe their lives, to defy government bans and threats. They are waiting to hear from the American president.

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.