Dispatch July 2009

Obama Cannot Afford to Get Iran Wrong

His instincts so far have been pitch-perfect
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President Barack Obama has come under withering criticism from neoconservatives and liberal internationalists for not speaking out more quickly and forcefully in support of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran. But now that the initial crisis is past, and Teheran has settled in for a behind-the-scenes struggle among the Shiite clergy, it is apparent that Obama's instinct has been pitch-perfect.

The last time an American president was criticized for not coming out forcefully enough in support of pro-democracy demonstrators was twenty years ago, when George H. W. Bush took a publicly reticent stance as the Soviet Empire collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. In A World Transformed, the 1998 memoir he coauthored with his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, one of the finest and under-rated of political memoirs written in recent decades, Bush recalled that he felt it important to “step carefully in Poland and Hungary and … avoid aggravating the Soviets, whose military presence still loomed there.” If the U.S. had taken overt action to encourage democracy, he explained, “I understood that the pressure on Gorbachev from hard-liners to intervene would grow...there could be more Tiananmens."

In other words, he recognized that Ronald Reagan's aggressive policies had set history in Eastern Europe in motion, and that it was now his own task to slow it down – to allow liberal change to settle in with minimal bloodshed. Tiananmen was fresh in his memory—a bloody repression by another communist regime against its democratic opponents. His fear of instigating another such event governed his decisions in Europe.

Obama now faces a similar challenge.

History has been set in motion in Iran. Though only dozens have been killed so far, the possibility of hundreds or more dying in a bloody upheaval is not out of the question. One ayatollah has even called for executions. Obama's goal must be political change and liberation in Teheran with minimal bloodshed. And he simply cannot accomplish that by putting America's fingerprints all over the democracy movement there. How he handles this could mean the difference between a massive crackdown by a terror-promoting, radical regime (who would likely retain complete control for years to come), and a gradual behind-the-scenes transformation, as the clerisy moves delicately away from the "Death to America" mantra of previous decades. In that regard, like the elder Bush vis-à-vis Eastern Europe, the less Obama says about Iran these days the better. It's not about winning an argument, as some commentators appear to believe; it's about effecting change, indirectly, in a complex society half-a-world away.

The fact is that various scenarios are possible for Iran, and the United States must prepare for all of them by not rhetorically boxing itself in. It is very possible that the hardliners in Iran will win the immediate power struggle, and seek, months down the road, to engage the U.S. as a way to take some of the wind out of the sails of the democratic opposition. With a nuclear Iran a not-so-distant reality, America's national interest dictates that it set itself up properly for such a circumstance. If the democrats eventually win the power struggle, the U.S. will be in an optimum position in any case. It is the less-than-optimum scenario that the U.S. has to prepare for. Recall that the elder Bush's muted rhetoric did not harm the democracy movements in Eastern Europe one bit; in fact, it might have helped them, by reducing the threat of a Soviet military response.

Iran, because of its size, its well-educated population, its geographical logic - there is relatively little artificial about its frontiers - and its position straddling the oil-rich Caspian Sea and the oil-rich Persian Gulf, is the most powerful and influential nation in the Moslem world. It retains the ability to destabilize Iraq—and even a small shift in its foreign policy could promote stability in Lebanon or further Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Obama cannot afford to get Iran wrong.

And he is not. His temperament can't be improved upon. In his Cairo speech, he talked in broad terms about liberal change in the Muslim world. That may have been a factor in the election in Lebanon in June, in which the pro-western anti-Hezbollah faction won. And who knows, it may also have helped spur the democracy demonstrations in Iran. But he has been careful not to insert himself into Iran’s domestic debate, except in the vaguest terms.

Iran will likely soon develop enough weapons-grade material to make a bomb, even as it may not eventually do so. Moreover, a few years hence, a nuclear Iran may be a very different ideological animal than the country we know today. Thus, the idea that the clock is ticking and someone - the U.S. or Israel - must bomb Iran now is simplistic. Vice President Joseph Biden’s remark over the weekend, on This Week With George Stephanopoulos, that Israel has Washington’s go-ahead to attack Iran was unwise and undisciplined. It is the only blemish in the Administration's performance thus far.

In a postscript to A World Transformed, Brent Scowcroft writes that he felt a sense of pride when the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin one last time—pride in having helped the Soviet Union to reach a relatively peaceful dissolution, even as he admits that Mikhail Gorbachev deserved most of the credit. When it comes to Iran, at the rate Obama is going—treading carefully, helping liberal-minded Iranians where we can (in the shadows mostly), he may one day be able to feel a similar degree of accomplishment.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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