Leave Iran to the Iranians

As experts clash on how to deal with Iran’s turmoil, Leslie H. Gelb says Obama is right to keep his distance—this is what Iranians want, and they have smart, sophisticated reasons for it.

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Iranian hardliners just can’t wait for President Barack Obama to raise high the protesters’ green banner so they can turn it red, white, and blue and unleash a bloodbath against “American agents.” And American hardliners and foreign-policy gurus just keep pushing Obama toward precisely that rhetorical abyss, hoping either to topple the mullah dictatorship—which they know to be a very long shot—or to ensure what they see as the benefits of an American-Iranian confrontation.

Iranians know that Obama and all Americans are with them. They are quite sophisticated and are much more aware of American politics than even the learned gurus are of Tehran’s.

The hardliners and gurus might, for once, trouble to inquire as to the wishes of the Iranians who are risking their lives in the streets of Tehran. They might have noticed that these brave people have not been clamoring for Obama’s open support. Iranians know the consequences of that support. They also know that Obama and all Americans are with them. They are quite sophisticated and are much more aware of American politics than even the learned gurus are of Tehran’s. For many years now, virtually every Iranian who talks to an American says we should stay out of their affairs, that when we try to help them, we hurt them. Do you hear Iranians twittering their thanks to Charles Krauthammer, Paul Wolfowitz, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain? Does that silence mean anything to those Americans urging them on to spill their blood for freedom and democracy? Oh, of course, our moralists and seers of “a historical turning point” are not so crude as to blatantly call the protesters to freedom’s barricades or for Obama to urge a bloodbath for democracy. But they walk right up to that line.

“It is in the direct, hard-headed interest of the United States to encourage enough social space in Iran to test how far these protests eventually might go, since they have already gone further than most thought possible,” wrote Michael Gerson in Sunday’s Washington Post. What on earth does “enough social space…to test how far these protests eventually might go” mean? Does it mean nothing? Or does it mean encourage revolution? And if the latter, what does Gerson propose Washington do if and when Iranian blood begins to flow in the streets? Or try the much more modulated advice from The New York Times’ David Brooks: “And there are no circumstances in which the United States has been able to peacefully play a leading role in another nation’s revolution. But there are many tools this nation has used to support indigenous democrats: independent media, technical advice, economic and cultural sanctions, presidential visits for key dissidents, the unapologetic embrace of democratic values, the unapologetic condemnation of the regime’s barbarities.” Apart from the “condemnation of barbarities,” Brooks is far too sophisticated to think that any of these other tools would matter much in present circumstances.

And yet, this moderate conservative continues: “The Iranian elections have stirred a whirlwind that will lead, someday, to the regime’s collapse. Hastening that day is now the central goal.” But he tells us nothing on how to “hasten” that good day, save for his list of very modest “tools.” And what would Brooks have Obama do if the road to “hastening” were paved with weeks of bloodshed? He is silent on further “tools.”

Charles Krauthammer doesn’t hesitate to proclaim his real goal: “regime change” as the only way to solve future nuclear threats. “Our fundamental values demand that America stand with demonstrators opposing a regime that is the antithesis of all we believe.” He then asks, “Where is our president? Afraid of meddling.” And how does this brilliant pen of the right propose to meddle effectively? Like his neoconservative brethren, he offers nothing besides moral condemnation.

It is most fair for the critics to keep raising the condemnation question. Obama has skirted the matter, restricting himself to warnings like the world is “watching” how the mullahs treat their people and urging Iranian leaders to “avoid violence.” These particular verbal slaps do seem less than the moment requires. Perhaps it would be right to go further. But right for whom? For them or for us to feel good? Might we try to find out from some judicious, non-manipulated, twittering what Iranians feel?

American words sting and they can be transformed into Iranian bullets, and President Obama knows that full and very well.

However “right” open condemnation might be, would it be influential in a helpful direction, i.e. to settle matters without undue bloodshed with highly uncertain results? Wolfowitz, the master strategist of the Bush administration for the Middle East, argues a resounding yes. He points to the color revolutions of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, and yes, there’s something to this. But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was actually dismantling the Soviet empire—doing our work for us—and neither Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush wanted to interfere with that process. Wolfowitz also cites the Philippines and the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos. But of course, Washington had enormous influence with the Filipino security forces to back up our calls for democracy, which we totally lack in Iran. Wolfowitz fails to mention moral calls in the 1950s by John Foster Dulles and the C.I.A. for uprisings in Hungary and its neighbors. The result? Soviet armies crushed the revolutionaries, and we did nothing, as President Eisenhower had made clear was his position beforehand. And Wolfowitz doesn’t mention H.W. Bush’s urging the Shiites of southern Iraq to rebel against Saddam in the wake of the first Gulf War. This resulted in a Shiite rebellion and in Saddam’s killing tens of thousands of those poor souls, while Washington did absolutely nothing. And what about Tiananmen? Would going to the moral mattresses have prevented the awful crackdown by the Chinese communist government? Not a chance. And look where we are today—with China as America’s biggest holder of U.S. securities. Wolfowitz and his fellow neocons are well aware of these histories and historical complexities. So, their disregard of any fair-minded exposition of the issue suggests a hidden motive—the Krauthammer goal of confrontation and regime change.

Europeans like the British can indulge in full moral ferocity. That’s because the Iranians swat away their words, knowing they’ll never back them up. But American words sting and they can be transformed into Iranian bullets, and President Obama knows that full and very well. He is mostly acting with considerable skill and sensitivity in this ultra dangerous situation.

A large number of Iranians, quite sophisticated people, are struggling to loosen the bonds of a terrible dictatorship. The dictators have a monopoly of force on their side. So far, there have been no cracks in Iran’s army and police, and until there is, only death awaits the protesters. The protesters have unhappiness and contempt of the government on their side, and their numbers are growing well beyond students and businessmen in Tehran. Iran will never be the same after the last weeks. Most likely, the near-term effects will be greater repression and government control. But the genie of discontent is now out of the bottle, and time and politics will be on the side of the dissidents. Let us give them that chance—and look and listen very carefully for their voice for what Washington can do that will help them more than harm them.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.