Niebuhr And Iran


My Sunday column focused on the exquisite dilemma now posed by Tehran's military-theological junta. Engaging them will not be morally or pragmatically easy:

What now? That will depend on what transpires in Iran, how the regime responds to the collapse in its legitimacy, how its internal factions jostle and who ends up pulling the biggest strings. One school of thought among the Obamaites is that this episode could have so weakened Khamenei that he may be eager to make a deal with Obama to win back some support from the Mousavi voters. That might help in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not on the nuclear programme which Mousavi backs as well.

Another, more realistic, school believes that Khamenei will harden his stance against the West even more, because he needs to shore up his base, and will construct a new external enemy to justify further repression. The problem here is that he no longer has Bush to demonise.

Yet another thinks this is a great time to play Syria against Iran and to use the common antipathy to Iran among Sunni Arab regimes and Israel to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. And that, in turn, could undermine the anti-Zionist claptrap that operates as a kind of rhetorical Viagra for the ageing Khamenei cabal. Well, it’s a plan, I suppose. I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

The key to Obama’s approach, I suspect, is his respect for Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian and political theorist who appreciated the power of non-violence and community organisation he was of the Gandhi and Martin Luther King generation. But Niebuhr also understood the necessity of using force and playing hardball in foreign relations in a fallen world. This “Christian realism” has rarely been as relevant as it is today and it’s deep in Obama.

A strategy of total disengagement from Iran, isolation and war might be morally and rhetorically satisfying, as it was for George W Bush, but it might be less morally responsible to the people of Iran and the peace of the world than an unsavoury attempt to grapple with an evil regime with open eyes. Balancing these two imperatives of always being open to peace and dialogue while always being girded against appeasement is what Niebuhr teaches we cannot and must not avoid. It will mean a vulnerability on Obama’s part to being called weak or contradictory; but it may also be the only way to secure a practical peace.

Think of it in game theory, as the British blogger Marbury did last week. Obama is playing “Retaliator”. He starts out as a dove and waits to see the response. If the response is also a dove, he reciprocates and builds trust for mutual benefit. If the response is a sharp-clawed hawk, he becomes a hawk. But the dove’s posture is always there beneath and is established early for maximal advantage. What Obama wants to do now is what he tried to do in Cairo to lever the people of Iran against their rulers. He won’t take the bait of easy conflict, but neither will he concede without a Khamenei concession. So the pressure builds on the Tehran regime from within and without. And Obama carefully and methodically bides his time.

Bush was playing draughts; Obama is playing chess. And it’s Khamenei’s move.

(Photo: a Green Revolutionary hurling flowers at the Basij by Olivier Laban-Mattei/Getty.) -- AS.