Sunday, June 21, 2009

Talking Iran Crisis Blues: What’s Wrong with Western Passivity

By Barry Rubin

Many years ago, I was asked to address a large conference of Iranian-Americans and Iranians in the United States. Annoyed by previous speakers who spoke as if all of Iranian history was determined by the United States and Britain—including claims that the 1979 Islamic revolution was an American operation and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a U.S. puppet--I included in my talk a strong rejection of these conspiracy theories.

Afterward, an audience member came up to me and said that he could not agree more with my talk. After all, he continued, “It wasn’t the Americans who really determined everything that happened in Iran and it wasn’t the British. It was the French!”

Clearly, Iranian political culture is saturated with belief that foreigners determine everything. Perhaps this has now changed somewhat, with the massive street demonstrations showing that Iranians are taking their fate into their own hands. If that’s true, they won’t care if the hated regime blames America for their movement; and if it is true they will cheer the United States if they believe this to be so.

One thing is certain, however. The way things are going now, they will curse the United States and the West for not doing more to help them. In fact, they will say—as many Turks in that country’s opposition do—that Washington and the West are actually on the side of the Islamist regime and want Ahmadinejad and Khamenei to win.

Indeed, to listen to what the Obama administration says—though it has moved up its rhetoric one step in recent days—there is some truth to that assertion. Yet it is foolish indeed for anyone to hope for that outcome.

What is the greater danger:

Iran has a less fanatical and adventurous faction in charge. It continues some of its problematic policies but is more cautious, less prone to risk-taking, devotes fewer resources to spreading revolution, and is more eager to avoid war.


Power being in the hands of a group determined to become the region’s dominant power, eager to use money, subversion, and even nuclear weapons to do so no matter what the consequences.

I’ll choose the first alternative.

And so when President Obama says there is no difference between these factions and gives only the minimum possible verbal support to the opposition, he is making a mistake that may in retrospect ensure that his administration is not only a failure but a disaster internationally.

What are the key factors here.

1. The administration does not speak about the revolt because it does not identify the Iranian regime as an adversary but as a potential negotiating partner. The problem is that the Tehran regime is an adversary and if it puts down this revolt it is going to be all the more hardline and dangerous. This is so not only because of the type of people running the regime but also due to the logic of such governments in such societies.
Westerners think that a regime at bay will be more flexible. The reverse is true—as the history of Middle East dictators should have taught policymakers—it is tougher in order to show its strength, rally support and intimidate people at home and in the neighborhood.

While Western societies extol weakness—people make fun of themselves, leaders apologize, governments think compromise is the route to survival—Middle Eastern dictatorships believe that strength is the best way to gain their objectives and stay in power.

2. The United States cannot speak about the revolt, goes the argument, because the regime will exploit this intervention. This is a typical example of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” This is one of two ideas President Obama seems to grasp about Iran and it’s as outdated as the idea that the supreme guide and not the president is the country’s real ruler. The regime will claim American intervention no matter what Washington does and there will be no gratitude for America’s standing by and letting the opposition be crushed. See the anecdote that opened this article. And also here is one of many examples of the regime making such claims already.

3. There is also a hidden reason. This administration holds the view that America interferes too much in other people’s business. What other countries and governments think of as legitimate great power behavior has become in the administration’s thinking shameful imperialism. Since America has no right to act, it cannot intervene anywhere. Since it is a land so loaded with sin, it has no right to judge others. Such ideological baggage can be lost by the airline of history but that isn’t inevitable and for this administration hasn’t happened yet.

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