Thursday, June 18, 2009

Obama is right on Iran

By now it's become quite apparent that the Iranian election was rigged. Mir Hussein Mousavi probably won it outright, but what is certain is that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lost decisively.

What to do about it, however, is another question, and US policy basically boils down to this: what feels good vs. what works.

What feels good is to shout to the rafters that the election was stolen, to fund and support and back the Green movement, and to refuse to negotiate with anyone from an illegitimate Ahmadinejad regime.

What works is to do what Obama has been very good at doing so far, and that is to take a subtle hand on foreign policy. Active foreign support for a protest movement like the Green movement would kill it. It would give pro-Ahmadinejad hardliners all the excuse they need to quash the protesters. A light hand -- calling for respect for the people's will but not actively taking sides -- gives the protesters the best chance to succeed, something people who thought invading Iraq was a good idea would not understand. David Ignatius, thankfully, gets it, and says so:

Obama would make a mistake if he seemed to meddle in Iranian politics. That would give the mullahs the foreign enemy they need to discredit the reformers. Obama struck the right tone when he said late Monday: "The world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was." The basic message is: We support the Iranian people and their democracy. Any change in how Iran is governed is their decision, not America's.

John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gets it too:

We can’t escape the reality that for reformers in Tehran to have any hope for success, Iran’s election must be about Iran — not America. And if the street protests of the last days have taught us anything, it is that this is an Iranian moment, not an American one.

Furthermore, as Obama understands (and as everyone used to understand back in the Cold War) there need not be any linkage between legitimacy and diplomacy. Iran's leadership may not be democratic, but they still control the nuclear policy, and therefore -- newsflash to people like Robert Kagan who still, for some reason, get column space in the Washington Post -- talking to Iran is not "siding with the regime." Any more than negotiating arms control with the Soviets was "legitimizing" their rule.

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