Alex Massie

Talking Tough on Iran

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If you knew that you were likely to be framed by the police, would you go ahead and commit the crime anyway, reasoning that you had nothing to lose? Would that be the sensible thing to do? Then, at trial, suppose you decided that, even though you were innocent of the charges brought against you, it would be sensble to behave in a manner that gave the jury reason to suppose that you might in fact be guilty after all. Would that be a sensible policy?

That's the rough-and-ready comparison I'd draw with the question - still vexed, it seems - of how to talk about events in post-election Iran. Plenty of commenters and other folk, such as Tim at Conservative Party Reptile, argue that no-good has come from taking a measured, even softly-softly approach. But if rhetoric were likely to change the Iranian regime's behaviour then it might have done so by now. And of course it hasn't. So one is left with the suspicion, alas, that all the fine words uttered by western politicians are really designed for domestic consumption, not in any expectation that they'll bring the mullahs to their senses.

But this, alas again, seems more likely to help the regime than the protestors. What use are fine words from the Americans if, while giving succour to the protestors, they are also perceived, fairly or not, to constitute "meddling" in Iranian affairs? As I've argued, the people who haven't been marching matter too since, putatively at least, they could have determined the outcome of this struggle. But giving, however obliquely, credence to the regime's accusations that Britian and the US were interfering - again! - in Iranian domestic affairs would not have been a sensible move while the outcome of the struggle remains (remained?) in the balance. If Iranians are asked to choose between party and country my guess is the majority will plump for country.

In a sense, of course, we may have come to the point at which discussions about how we should talk about Iran become moot as the crackdown continues. But while hope still flickers, it seems that keeping quiet seems a better, if less emotionally satisfying policy. That's not because one wouldn't like to see the reformers prevail but because one would. Equally, one may criticise elements of Obama's approach to democracy and human rights issues while still thinking that he's adopted a sensibly cautious approach in this instance. Wading in with a great big rhetorical cudgel, as Jon McCain would have done, helps no-one but the regime.

Or, to put it another way, there's the thought experiment Daniel Luban conducts: suppose Kruschev had come out and endorsed Martin Luther King and called for the international community to do more to support the civil rights movement. Do you think this would have increased support and sympathy for MLK inside the United States? Or would it have been, from the perspective of the civil rights movement, an unwelcome and counter-productive intervention? (NB: Neither Luban nor I are arguing that Obama=Kruschev or the USA=USSR. Don't be silly, folks.)

Still, matters are going to become trickier before they become simpler. It's Persia, Jake. Consider the question that Nico Pitney asked Obama yesterday:

Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working to achieve?

This is the gritty nub of the matter. The truth, I suspect, is that many a Persian policy has perished in these past few dramatic days. Obama's preference for engagement is, I think, likely to be untenable assuming, as seems quite likely, that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei survive. At the very least, it's going to be put into the freezer for a few months until a moment arrives at which the United States can pretend that none of this ever happened. But even then, it's hard to see what Washington can offer the Iranians to persuade them to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Indeed, a regime that feels itself ever more isolated and surrounded by enemies is likely to be more determined to get the bomb than it was before. And of course it was pretty keen on getting nukes anyway.

However, if the case for engagement has been weakened, then the argument in favour of military action - always a reckless gamble with limited upside or potential for success anyway - seems to have been demolished. It is hard to think of anything that could do more to rehabilitate a discredited regime than attacking Iran. As I say, even the reformers will choose country over party.

So, what is to be done? Good question! Sit quietly and hope for the best isn't a very satisfying prescription but it might be about the best we can hope for.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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