Iran’s Revolutionary Road: Beware the Echo Chamber

What a strange week this has been. The Mexican navy seized more than a ton of cocaine that had been stuffed inside frozen sharks, the Venezuelan government banned Coke Zero because of unspecified health concerns, and American neo-conservatives suddenly developed a pious concern for the Iranian people. Bill Kristol, for instance, wrote passionately in the Washington Post about “the brave Iranians demonstrating for freedom and democracy” and urged President Obama to “speak for liberty. Speak for America.” In the Weekly Standard, Michael Goldfarb expressed the fervent hope that the administration would “stand up and support the Iranian kids who are pleading for help as they’re beaten in the streets.” In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg begged the president to “look to the real Iranian street at the moment of its greatest need, when its heart may be open to loving America.”

But it wasn’t that long ago that these same people wanted to bomb the country. When he was on the campaign trail in 2008, John McCain responded to a South Carolina voter’s question about Iran by singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb / bomb, bomb Iran.” The neo-cons have consistently argued that Iran was a hostile theocracy ruled by a genocidal madman, and that, were it to acquire nuclear weapons, it would undoubtedly use them against Israel. Using diplomacy with Iran, they said, was utterly futile. A small contingent on the left, meanwhile, pointed out a rather inconvenient fact: it was George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that emboldened Iran and turned it into a regional power. Using force would only further destabilize an already volatile part of the world. And in any case, given the costly wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, the U.S. could ill afford to open yet another front. Engagement with Iran, they said, was necessary.

Going into the presidential elections, the neo-cons didn’t expect much because the candidates in Iran have to be vetted by the twelve-member Council of Guardians, half of whom are appointed by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and half elected by the Majlis. This essentially means that no true reformist would ever be allowed to run. A few liberals, however, were hoping that Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former Prime Minister who now chairs the Iranian Academy of Arts, would defeat the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mousavi is not a reformist (he served under Ayatollah Khomeini, for God’s sake), but he seems to many people to be more of a pragmatist, someone who would be more open to dialogue.

What happened on June 12 took both camps by surprise. The state-run news agency called the election for Ahmadinejad just two hours after polls closed, even though there were nearly 40 million ballots cast. Despite his lackluster performance as president, Ahmadinejad had seven million more votes in 2009 than in 2005. Furthermore, he won in Tehran (where he is reportedly unpopular) as well as in places like Khameneh (Mousavi’s hometown in East Azerbaijan) or Aligoodarz (Mehdi Karroubi’s hometown in Lorestan). Soon after, images of demonstrators brutally repressed by riot police began to filter in from the country. Free and fair elections do not usually result in popular uprisings of the magnitude we saw on our computer and television screens. It was clear that the elections were a fraud.

While the neo-cons’ calls for a muscular reaction are hardly surprising, several people from across the political spectrum seem to have joined them in demanding a louder response from the White House. Andrew Sullivan posted a steady stream of eyewitness accounts, videos, and tweets (much of which unconfirmed) over the weekend following the election. He switched the color of his blog banner to green, in solidarity with Mousavi supporters. He urged Western governments not to recognize Ahmadinejad as the victor in this election. In the Nation, John Nichols found Obama’s response to be “tepid” and “disappointing” and wished that the president would take a clue from Nicolas Sarkozy, who boldly declared that the events in Iran are “a tragedy.” (By the way, one little detail that seems to have escaped the attention of those who loved Sarkozy’s comment: he was speaking from Libreville, where he was attending the funeral of his good friend Omar Bongo, the dictator who has ruled Gabon with an iron fist for 41 years.) In the New York Times, Roger Cohen wrote that, although he had in the past argued for engagement with Iran, he felt that “in the name of the millions defrauded, President Obama’s outreach must now await a decent interval. ”

This echo chamber worries me, because it seems to me it could easily pave the way for further escalation and eventual military action. Which is why Obama’s cautious stance so far on Iran is the right move. At the moment, all we know for certain is that the will of Iranian voters has been obstructed and that they are letting their voices heard. The breathtaking protests we are seeing may be pro-Mousavi, but they are also just as likely to be anti-regime (in fact, I rather suspect that Mousavi is now thrust into a role he did not foresee). I hope that the will of the people prevails.

One thing is clear, however. Polls have shown that Iranians feel that nuclear weapons are a proper deterrent in a neighborhood that already includes nuclear-armed powers (Pakistan, Israel) and multiple American bases (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey.) Regardless of who will lead Iran for the next four years, the country’s nuclear ambitions will not go away.

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