It would help if we [Americans] could learn occasionally to let things seek an indigenous solution.
Often, during the run up to the recent Iranian presidential elections and since, U.S. President Barack Obama has been criticized by Republican hawks for not more robustly injecting himself into the process. No one who accesses WhirledView will be unaware of the vigorous campaigning of the Iranian opposition to Mahmud Ahmedinejad’s re-election, the numbers and enthusiasm of voters, the charges of a rigged election, the prolonged public protests, the arrests, the mass "trials" of reformists big and small now underway. Always, it seemed, Obama’s comments, were a little behind the curve, responding to events, not orchestrating them.
In fact, the Obama approach was inspired and just right. At various times during the hard fought Iranian election campaign, defenders of the Ahmedinejad regime attempted to dismiss the reformers as tools of the U.S. or, more often, of Britain, home of the BBC, that very annoying purveyor of trustworthy news. (Would that VOA were still respected for its hard news!) But the charges never stuck. The opposition wasn’t bought. It was heart-felt. It was home-grown.
Not so, insisted the prosecutors in Tehran's four (so far) “show trials,” although the Arab Press is evidently not buying that line. The Arab News ran a prescient pre-election piece, but has run no commentary since, a prudent wait-and-see stance, no doubt. An article on Al Arabiya’s web-site features reformists’ charges of “mass burials” of murdered protesters and other alleged hard-liners’ abuses. It also ran another long article headlined “Reformists and Khatami Aids on Trial,” in which charges and denials of Western interference are both mentioned more or less in passing. Other Arab sources make no mention of the government’s charges, discounting them by silence. This is true even of Aljezeera, that supposedly anti-U.S. TV operation. Now it may be that Sunni Arab sources might not be all that deferential to a non-Arab government run by Shi’ite ayatollahs. And yet, nationalism runs strong in the Middle East. If the evidence were strong enough, the Arab press would find it hard not to jump on the bandwagon.
There is, of course, pretty good reason for Iranian hard-liners in control of the government to suffer from some paronoia. The Islamic Republic was founded on, among other things, a rejection of American influence in Iranian affairs. The notorious embassy hostage situation was really just pay back in spades.
But old habits die hard. Back in 2006 the Bush administration was, quite noisily, planning to spend $85 million “to promote democracy” in Iran, while by mid 2008 “Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran,” according to the usually well informed Seymour M. Hersh.
Yet, even then, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were reporting that
prominent activists and political opponents of Iran’s hard-line administration are warning that U.S. funds designated to help civic groups in Iran could backfire. In fact, even reformers would resent foreign attempts to push Iran in this direction or that. What’s more, “if activists were to accept U.S. aid, they would immediately be branded U.S. spies and accused of endangering Iran’s national security."
Aiding “democracy” forces is not so easy, the Washington Post editorialized in 2006:
The United States has a very mixed record in its choices about which dissidents to support, having done so successfully in 1980s Poland and unsuccessfully in prewar Iraq. If the Iranian opposition is to succeed, it must do so on its own terms.Amazingly enough, it may have done so, just four years after the reformist president Khatami was succeeded by the hard-line Ahmedinejad. For the hard liners to “win” the recent election, lot of rigging was evidently needed. In the process of enforcing those much doubted results, the moral authority of the Supreme Leader was undermined, the clergy were shown to be not monolithic but openly at odds with one another and, all in all, the regime’s fissures were openly on display for the first time, with even the hard liners quarreling over how to fill cabinet posts. Given these developments, whatever the outcome of the current trials in Tehran, it’s doubtful that the reformist movement will have been destroyed. It may be quiescent for awhile, but further change will be germinating, and when reform finally occurs (and note, no one is talking of going back to the Shah!) it will be well-rooted, indigenous, genuine.
And yet, signs are that the Obama administration may not be able to resist the American impulse to meddle and dominate. USA Today reports that “the Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents,” even as President Obama continues to insist that the “U.S. is not meddling in Iran’s affairs.” Given the failure of external news sources to trumpet the Iranian government’s charges of massive foreign interference, I’m inclined to believe him, for now, even though Saeed Hajjarian, a prominent reformist figure, has “confessed” to being in touch with privately-funded but still foreign the Soros Foundation, according to the official Fars News Agency anyway.
Obama can’t have it both ways. If you are pouring money into Iran, you are meddling—and you will be tainting the reformers, especially if you aren’t operating openly, secrecy and subversion being all too comfortable bedfellows. Such restraint doesn’t preclude speaking out in favor of human rights, etc. Inspiration may exasperate Iranian authorities, but speech is fair game—and very powerful, when it rings true. (Which, of course, is the rub these days, for American officials.) Let’s hope that Obama will, so far as relations with Iran are concerned, ignore the Republicans he’s been entirely too attentive to on issues like financial and health care reform.
Read the whole of the wonderful article by Haleh Esfandiari the Iranian-American director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars” who was held in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison for 105 days in 2007. She concludes:
...the widespread discontent will not be easily silenced. Iran’s hard-liners have long feared a foreign-inspire upheaval. Ironically, they seem to have accomplished why their ubiquitous foreign “enemies” could not: They have planted the seeds for their own, homegrown velvet revolution.