Alex Massie

What Should Obama Say About the Iranian Elections?

Text settings

Since I've been sceptical about some of Barack Obama's rhetoric on democracy promotion and human rights, Stephen Hayes's comments at the Weekly Standard merit some attention:

Obama could tap into the enthusiasm and frustration of the protesters with a few well-chosen words about democracy, the rule of law, the will of the people, consent of the governed and legitimacy. He could choose a compelling story or two from inside Iran to make his points most dramatically, perhaps an anecdote about sacrifices some Iranians made to vote or an example of post-election intimidation.

When Barack Obama was elected, his supporters promised that his foreign policy would seek to effect important change in the world without using force, that he would deploy soft power – or, as Hillary Clinton put it during her confirmation, “smart power.”

Now is the time.

This is, to be sure, tempting and even persuasive. But perhaps only superficially so. I suspect the White house is reluctant to commit itself to anything right now, given how fluid* and uncertain the situation in Iran seems to be. But what would the Iranian regime want the Americans to do? I rather fear they'd be pleased if the US President followed Mr Hayes' advice. If nothing else, it would, perhaps, allow them to divert attention from their own actions and recast the domestic political power struggle as a contest between Iran and the United States. It is hard to see how any such "reframing" of the argument could help the opposition. Quite the contrary in fact. Forcing Iranians to choose between Iran and the United States does not seem a winning proposition if, that is, helping the opposition is one's aim.

Everything Obama could say, were he to follow Hayes' advice, might well be true, but that's not necessarily the most important factor. Far from it, in fact. If the US openly backs Moussavi, it would permit the mullahs to claim that the opposition are the Americans' "useful idiots" and, consequently, anti-Iranian. It doesn't seem too tricky to see how this would help the regime and damage, perhaps fatally so, the opposition.

I've no real reason to suppose that Hayes is being disingenuous here, but, superficially attractive though his suggestion may be, I'm unconvinced it is a wise one. Better, surely, for the American president to take a cautious, quiet approach even if this is, on this occasion, less immediately satisfying than a bold, ringing declaration of principle might be. Sometimes discretion is not merely the better part of valour but of common sense too.

*Like everything else, all this may change and, quite possibly, change pretty soon. It probably will. That in turn would change the calculus for Obama. But, again, in general terms, it's not clear or obvious, at least at the moment, that the Americans can or should get involved in even a rhetorical sense.

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman has more on this. (Via Andrew, whose blog has been a great clearing-house for Persian affairs today.)

UPDATE 2: See also Freddie at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen and, for an excellent recap on events, Gary Sick.

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.

Topics in this articlePoliticsiran