Maintaining Distance from Iran

As the Islamic Republic of Iran veers closer to outright insurrection and the competing factions of Mir Hossain Mousavi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei engage in a game of high-stakes political brinksmanship, should the United States play a more active role in Iranian affairs? Those in power must chart a careful course, for the same thorny question toppled the legacy of another Democratic president 30 years ago.

High-powered Republicans both in and out of government were quick to criticize President Barack Obama for his “soft” approach to the Iran’s unrest following contested elections on June 12. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina led conservatives in accusing the Obama administration of avoiding an American show of support for pro-democracy Mousavi supporters.

In his June 23 press conference, Obama relented. His message to Iran was at once more direct, more forceful, and more likely to backfire. “Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history,” Obama said, the strongest indicator yet that the United States views Iran’s re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a fraud.

Obama’s June 23 statement also marks the first mention of “consequences” if the Iranian government continues its campaign of oppression and violence against Mousavi’s supporters. This fatal over-reach may provide the Western-paranoid Ahmadinejad clique with precisely the ammunition it needs to marginalize Mousavi’s growing credibility outside of major cities.

The June 23 message missed its mark for the same reason former President Jimmy Carter stumbled during the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis in 1979. By publicly appeasing growing hawkish sentiment in America, both presidents lost essential leverage with nominally neutral Iranian forces.

Ahmadinejad’s Tactics

Iran proves an exasperating foreign policy case for American leaders. Despite wide unrest and displeasure with the government on matters ranging from domestic handling of the economy to Iran’s increasing international isolation, Ahmadinejad retains a core of support in rural villages. This support derives in large part from the political narrative developed after the collapse of the Shah in 1979 — that of a “lesser evil” government protecting Iran from takeover by hostile Western “puppets.”

For all his faults, Ahmadinejad has been extremely effective in using this “lesser evil” narrative to his political advantage by tethering personal political initiatives to the cart of “independence” from the West. He speaks of Iran’s nuclear development in terms of energy independence and military security. Although alienating for some moderate Iranians, the constant bellicosity toward Israel secures a political base that still legitimately fears a Jewish/Western anti-Iranian alliance. Paranoia over Western schemes to hogtie Iranian power runs so deep that even reformist candidate Mousavi supports continuing Iran’s nuclear program. Ahmadinejad may take more extreme positions than most Iranians are comfortable with, the theory goes, but at least they can be certain that he is loyal to Iran.

The Ahmadinejad/Khamenei team has used this narrative to disenfranchise potential political candidates and tighten their chokehold on power. It has secured support in conservative rural areas by stoking fears that the United States is covertly fomenting Mousavi supporters through U.S. websites like Twitter and Facebook hold water in conservative rural areas. The protesters – university students, many of them female — invite suspicion of American cultural corruption.

Openly providing support to Mousavi supporters, as some hawks advocate, would doom the entire movement, which the Obama administration keenly understands. A strong American hand in Iranian affairs will be counterproductive and dangerously naïve. Ahmadinejad’s regime thrives on just such acts as a premise for further isolation. World criticism counterintuitively strengthens the paranoia of Ahmadinejad’s claims.

Showing Solidarity

The surest way to show support for the Iranian pro-democracy movement without jeopardizing its viability is also the simplest: maintain current levels of service on internet websites like Twitter and Facebook, and provide means for Iranian protesters to circumvent current bans on media reporting and Internet café use.

Private citizens in Britain have published websites that provide a proxy to bypass Iranian internet restrictions. Many on Twitter have changed their nation of residence to Iran in order to stymie tracking of legitimate Iranian citizen journalists. These steps can and have been carried out without American government backing, and in many cases serve as the only outlet for video and photography from inside Iran. By using pre-existing private sector technology instead of involving the American government, Iranian protesters become stakeholders in their own resistance. Denied a believable means of blaming foreign intervention, the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei regime has backpedaled in recent days, going so far as to extend the deadline for contesting presidential ballots.

This progress occurred without the involvement of the American government. The lesson of Iran’s protests proves counterintuitive and politically unpalatable for policy hawks: Do much by doing nothing. Entrusting Iranians to promote democracy on their own — rather than with open or covert U.S. government support — increases the risk of failure. But it is not as risky as compromising the legitimacy of the movement through open American backing.

Starved of any means to blame the West for its civil unrest, the Iranian government is on the verge of losing the Guardian Council’s necessary support. Former president and new reformer Ali Rafsanjani, once viewed as staunchly conservative, has openly contested Ahmadinejad’s claims that the protests are merely foreign meddling. This could never have happened without organic support within Tehran. Just as American condemnation strengthens Ahmadinejad’s political hand, our nuanced unwillingness to directly challenge his regime may result in its ultimate collapse.

Max Burns is an international projects lobbyist with a private consulting firm in Washington, D.C. and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He has worked on foreign affairs in the United States Congress and as a staff writer for The Asia Chronicle. He can be reached at mburns1987(at)gmail(dot)com.