Leading from behind on Iran won’t cut it.
Iran is moving closer to civil and economic pandemonium. The Wall Street Journal is reporting inflation at over 20% per month and a massive decline in the value of the Iranian rial since December on the black market. Capital flight can be a leading indicator of a middle and upper middle class that is developing contingency plans. The Iranian public and merchant class are sending a signal to the world: they have lost confidence in their future and want a better store of value.
This is no time to lead from behind. Now is the time for the White House to reach out to the Iranian public to stress that U.S. sanctions against the central bank and a potential European embargo on Iranian oil are directed at the current regime and not at the Iranian people. This will not reduce the pain on the street, but thus far Washington’s message is again muted.
When the Iranian street erupted after the June 2009 elections, the Administration’s approach was tentative. It seems that in that instance President Obama did not make use of the advice once offered, in a different context, by his former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” In the name of forbearance, an opportunity with Iran that was decades in the making was squandered. Suggesting that one man’s nuance is another’s timidity, the Administration offered the confusing dichotomy of restraint versus meddling in internal Iranian politics. With the U.S. accused of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, and disseminating the Stuxnet computer worm to compromise Iranian centrifuges that enrich uranium, the message to the Iranian people should be clear: get rid of a regime that is repugnant in the eyes of the world, and relations and trade with your country will be restored.
For over forty years of the Cold War, bipartisan forces in America stood steadfast with the peoples of Eastern Europe in their painful struggle against Soviet totalitarianism. Resistance was encouraged by U.S. administrations although intervention was deemed impractical during crises such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But never did a U.S. president not aggressively support Lech Walesa or other leaders of Solidarity for fear of projecting American values into the region or strengthening the hand of reactionaries.
The real choice is not the Administration’s affirmed dichotomy, but that between Islamist fundamentalism, and the forces of moderation and secularism in the Middle East — Iran is a principal theater of this drama with potential for democracy and acceptance of the West. For over a century, Iran has had a parliament, the Majlis. At times assertive and at others subservient to the monarchy or mullahs, it has been a body of elected officials of influence. Further, the Iranian middle and upper middle class have an affinity for Europe, particularly for France, as seen in design, tastes, and lifestyles. With immense proven oil reserves and proximity to the oil rich Caspian, a skilled labor force, and armed forces among the most powerful in the Middle East, Iran holds much potential as a U.S. ally — one needing American technology to build its oil industry. It also holds a key to enhancing stability, from South Asia to the Middle East, including Afghanistan, where most of the tribes have Iranian ethnic or linguistic antecedents.
Iran was once useful in containing the Soviets, and the U.S. backed the conservative and monarchist interests. There is certainly repair work to do, particularly with Iranians who remember the U.S. overthrowing premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, and later supporting the repressive Shah of Iran. But with a median age of 27, many Iranians had not even been born when America was first branded the Great Satan in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini.
The tide is running against the Iranian mullahs. Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt inspired by the need for human rights, and the current revolt in Syria, show that secular passions have crossed borders and have the power to ignite, against even the most repressive of regimes. The mullahs will ultimately be on the wrong side of history — as the young, educated, intellectuals, women, moderates, and middle class reassert themselves and take back the country from obscurantism. It’s time to help them get there.
Direct talks with Iran should not be ruled out, and sources in Iran now state that President Obama has asked for this — but such report has been denied by the Administration. However, negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran over the years have been of limited benefit to the West, and have allowed the Iranians to stall and covertly pursue their WMD aspirations.
Iran is a society and a civilization in transformation. The President still has an opportunity not to waste a crisis.
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