President Barack Obama said Monday he was "deeply troubled" by the violence in Iran that he's been seeing on television. "I think that the democratic process, free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent--all of those are universal values and need to be respected."
He was right to say these things. He should have stopped there.
But Obama rambled on. And out of the four muddled paragraphs that followed, his approach to the Iran Moment became clear.
Under President Obama, our approach to Iran--the world's foremost state sponsor of terror, a rogue regime racing toward nuclear capability--is not only not regime change, it's de facto regime preservation. So he delicately sought to say something that would mute the growing criticism of his silence--"It would be wrong for me to be silent about what we've seen on the television over the last few days," he said--without saying anything that could further destabilize the Iranian regime.
It was a missed opportunity. He got bad advice. "Our hated enemy for 30 years finally comes to a crisis moment," says Michael Anton, director of communications at the National Security Council during George W. Bush's first term. "And many of the same people who have been telling us for at least 20 years that the population is largely on our side decide to use this moment not to give the regime a push, or to throw the population a life vest, but to help keep the hated enemy in power."
President Obama said that he admired the protesters, not that he supported them. He refused to say anything at all that might have been understood as a direct criticism of the plainly fraudulent election. (On Tuesday, in his most aggressive statement, he said he joins the rest of the world in its "deep concern" about the election.) And by pretending that the coming "investigation" of perceived "irregularities" might actually be a serious undertaking, he strengthened the position of a criminal regime--or, as he prefers, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
His supporters say that any stronger statement would undermine those in the streets and give Ahmadinejad the upper hand. That's curious. By declaring his support for the protesters and directly questioning the results of the election, the same man who can commence "a new beginning" in America's relationship with the "Muslim world" in just 6,000 words can be outmaneuvered by a lunatic whose fraudulent claims to victory have inspired millions of Iranians to risk their lives in the streets?
Obama says he doesn't want to be seen as "meddling" given the long history of US-Iranian relations. Leave aside the question of whether simply stating the obvious is "meddling." If the majority of Iranians believe that Ahmadinejad's re-election is not legitimate, isn't it more likely that Obama's silence in the face of a stolen election will be viewed as another chapter in that long history rather than the end of it?
Obama's comments are disappointing, but not surprising. He is a naturally cautious politician (think about his reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia or the collapse of the economy during the campaign). And he is no doubt being told by his intelligence services, perhaps correctly, that a revolution that results in the overthrow of the real powers in Iran remains unlikely. So he sees Ahmadinejad as his negotiating partner and wants to do as little as possible to antagonize him or his sponsors.
Either Obama believes that he can engage in meaningful negotiations with Ahmadinejad, in which case he's a fool, or he believes that his spurned good-faith attempts at those negotiations will win him credit from our allies in Europe and elsewhere, good will that he can use to gain support for tough sanctions. In that case, he's fooling himself.
Ahmadinejad has declared many times that negotiations about Iran's nuclear program are dead. The nuclear issue "is closed" he said on May 25, a declaration he reiterated at his post-election press conference on Saturday. We don't have to take his word for it. The Iranian regime has rejected every overture Obama has made and several made by the Bush administration before it.
But even if Ahmadinejad reversed course and came to the table, why would we believe any promises he made? Any regime willing to defraud its own people so brazenly cannot be regarded as a serious negotiating partner.
Obama's plan has been to pursue negotiations until the end of the year. "The important thing is to make sure there is a clear timetable, at which we point we say these talks don't seem to be making any serious progress. By the end of the year we should have some sense whether or not these discussions are starting to yield significant benefits, whether we are starting to see serious movement on the part of Iranians," he said on May 18, while sitting next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama belives that if Iran chooses not to negotiate, or negotiates in bad faith, this diplomacy will have won him the moral authority to impose even tougher, multilateral sanctions on the recalcitrant regime.
If that was a reasonable approach before Friday, it is now completely unworkable. Sanctions work because they squeeze the populace and put pressure on the regime. But they are most effective when the regime is actually concerned about its people. (See North Korea and Iraq.) It should be quite clear that the Iranian regime does not care for its people.
And what kind of a regime are we preserving?
Iran was behind the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. military personnel and injured 372. The U.S. government indicted the bombers, members of Hizballah al Hijaz, and wrote: "These Hizballah organizations were inspired, supported and directed by elements of the Iranian government." The Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria, was "an important source of logistics and support" for the terrorists. Hizballah members learned that they "would need to be loyal to the party and to Iran" and "that the goal of the party was to target foreign interests, American in particular, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere." The terrorists traveled on Iranian passports, rode in Iranian embassy vehicles, took Iranian funding, received detailed instructions from the regime on surveillance, and provided written reports to elements of Iranian regime.
This support for anti-American terrorism is not in the past. Earlier this year, the Treasury Department provided information on four senior al Qaeda terrorists who had traveled to Iran after the attacks on September 11, 2001. They included close relatives of al Qaeda's top three--Saif al Adel, Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden--who had become al Qaeda leaders in their own right. These al Qaeda leaders operated freely from inside Iran for more than a year. In early 2003, their Iranian hosts reportedly detained them, but little is known of their whereabouts or subsequent activities. According to Treasury: "Sa'ad bin Laden, one of Usama bin Laden's sons, has been involved in al Qaida activities. For example, in late 2001, Sa'ad facilitated the travel of Usama bin Laden's family members from Afghanistan to Iran. Sa'ad made key decisions for al Qaida and was part of a small group of al Qaida members that was involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran."
The most recent version of the State Department's list of state sponsors of terror has this to say about Iran, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs.
Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) were directly involved in the planning and support of terrorist acts and continued to exhort a variety of groups, especially Palestinian groups with leadership cadres in Syria and Lebanese Hizballah, to use terrorism in pursuit of their goals. In addition, the IRGC was increasingly involved in supplying lethal assistance to Iraqi militant groups, which destabilizes Iraq.
That lethal assistance was the policy of the regime. "It is the policy of the Iranian government, approved to the highest levels of that government, to facilitate the killing of Americans in Iraq," said CIA Director Michael Hayden, in a speech delivered in May 2008.
Given this reality, the Obama administration ought to be doing everything possible to delegitimize and destabilize the current Iranian regime. At the very least, the president should avoid anything that lends greater authority to the thugocracy in Tehran.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.