Thoughts on Iran, part II

What we are witnessing in Iran right now is nothing short of revolutionary. Protests are larger than they have been since 1979, there are deep chasms emerging within the clerical establishment that has ruled the country for three decades, and people are quite literally risking (and, seemingly by the dozen, giving) their lives to claim what they feel has been taken from them. This is not necessarily to say it will all culminate in a revolution or even a change in the election results. As one of the most interesting analyses I have read of the Islamic Revolution, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran,  reminds anyone when looking at protest movements it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict the outcome of events once a certain level of chaos and upheaval has been reached. Nevertheless, it is a historic moment in the life of the Iranian state.

The Iranian government itself obviously recognizes this. Initial attempts to bunker down and ride it out (cut off all methods of communication that could be used to organize, issue multiple statements hailing the fairness and accuracy of the results, staging a “victory” rally, and thwarting the ability of foreign media to move around and report) were a spectacular failure. Taking a new tact of limited appeasement, the Supreme Leader reversed his own (twice stated) judgment that nothing improper or irregular happened and has opened the door for a partial recount. It would not be inaccurate to call this a stunning development. In general, the clerical leadership, while holding the real power in the country, stays behind the scenes. Khamenei is not one to seek out the spotlight, least of all to reverse his own publicly stated position on the crisis of this magnitude, which will probably define his tenure. One can reasonably interpret this shift as a nod to the gravity of the threat the regime perceives.  

I think it’s critical to understand the context in which this threat arises. The protesters are not calling for an end to the concept of an Islamic state — far from it, in fact. Just because elements of the opposition are seen as friendlier to the West, it doesn’t translate into a monolithic “Westernizing” force. And that is why it is potentially so dangerous to the stability of the status quo.

The leading faces speaking out — Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Montazeri — are figures who were among Khomeini’s inner circle in 1979. Montazeri, a Grand Ayatollah who was once seen as the successor to Khomeini, is of particular note. Think of it: a man who was once considered a probable successor to the founder of the Islamic Republic has now come out and said, in no uncertain terms, that the protesters are right and the government (including the clerical leadership) is wrong. No longer are we just questioning the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s presidency — rather, Khamenei himself and the institution he represents is called into question for abetting it. The most serious threats, it seems, are always from within and this is just one example of the fault lines developing within the clerical leadership that will reverberate for years to come regardless of how the current crisis is resolved. Once the “crisis of legitimacy” genie is out of the bottle, it’s impossible to get back in. People will always remember and internalize these events, coloring how they see every subsequent action by the government (much in the way the U.S. assisted coup in 1953 still hangs over U.S.-Iran relations).

Ultimately, despite everything that has transpired, I still think it’s a safer bet to assume the outcome of the election will stay as is. What does the U.S. do about this? Thus far, I think President Obama has it mostly correct. The Iranian nuclear program has attained a place of central importance in U.S. foreign policy. That leaves us with the need for a negotiating partner on the Iranian side. Although I’ve read some stirring and inspiring calls for the U.S. to be more critical of what is transpiring, including one written by a colleague/friend whom I respect a great deal, I simply can’t see how that is in anyone’s long-term interest. Three reasons why:

1) In matters of international affairs, one can’t choose one’s interlocutor. All things considered, it’s generally better for one to play the hand one is dealt than to try to interfere with the dealer. The U.S. has nothing to gain by crying foul here. The likely-to-continue President Ahmadinejad will use any and every statement to that effect as evidence of an American vendetta against him and as an excuse to avoid serious pressure for negotiations. Giving him yet more ammunition in this respect would be counterproductive.

2) Expressing strong support for Mousavi/the opposition would give pro-Ahmadinejad forces a great big brush with which to paint them as Western agents trying to undermine the Islamic Republic — in short, to obfuscate the true nature of the who and why behind what is taking place, playing into the idea of a U.S. backed “velvet revolution” much like the 1953 coup. Obama/America would become the face of the opposition, thereby making it much more difficult to organize the average person.

3) But isn’t America the great beacon of freedom? The shining city on the hill? The embodiment of the principles that infuse any movement based on a yearning for greater freedom and fairness? Then how — how — you ask can we sit here and do nothing to help (even when “help” is only strongly condemn the situation and call it what it is over and over again), and engage with Ahmadinejad going forward, while people are quite literally dying to have their votes counted? History has shown over and over again that real, lasting, change can’t be imposed; it has to come from within.

Maybe these events will snowball into something that fundamentally changes the character of Iranian leadership or maybe they will simply serve as another step taking them closer to that end. For now, I think it’s too fluid to tell with any certainty. The U.S. needs to let the Iranians sort things out and, ultimately, deal with the world as it is rather than as we would like to make it. This might mean dealing with a leader whom the entire thinking world can ascertain held onto his position through some combination of fraud, force, and lies.

With hundreds of thousands out on the streets of Iran, however, it’s too preliminary for the U.S. to throw its hat into that corner at this point. Just as we have nothing to gain by taking a hard line against Ahmadinejad’s supposed re-election, we have nothing to gain by overtly recognizing it at the moment either. President Obama and his team have been wise thus far in staking out a middle ground of observation rather than involvement, and one hopes they maintain that position until the landscape becomes clearer.

EDIT (June 17): Thank you to everyone who has clicked over here from the link by Andrew Sullivan this morning!

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