The protests in Iran have entered a third week and the state media acknowledges that the death toll has reached 19 and that hundreds have been injured. Fareed Zakaria, a man not noted for idle leaps, proclaims, “we are watching the fall of Islamic theocracy.”
In an interview with CNN, he explains:
No, I don’t mean the Iranian regime will fall soon. It may — I certainly hope it will — but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. I mean that this is the end of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian regime.
The regime’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, laid out his special interpretation of political Islam in a series of lectures in 1970. In this interpretation of Shia Islam, Islamic jurists had divinely ordained powers to rule as guardians of the society, supreme arbiters not only on matters of morality but politics as well. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, this idea was at its heart. Last week, that ideology suffered a fatal wound.
When the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “divine assessment,” he was indicating it was divinely sanctioned. But no one bought it. He was forced to accept the need for an inquiry into the election. The Guardian Council, Iran’s supreme constitutional body, met with the candidates and promised to investigate and perhaps recount some votes. Khamenei has subsequently hardened his position but that is now irrelevant. Something very important has been laid bare in Iran today — legitimacy does not flow from divine authority but from popular support.
As for the United States,
I would say continue what we have been doing. By reaching out to Iran, publicly and repeatedly, President Obama has made it extremely difficult for the Iranian regime to claim that they are battling an aggressive America bent on attacking Iran. In his inaugural address, his New Year greetings, and his Cairo speech, there is a consistent effort to convey respect and friendship for Iranians. That is why Khamenei reacted so angrily to the New Year greeting. It undermined the image of the Great Satan that he routinely paints in his sermons. In his Friday sermon, Khamenei said that the United States, Israel, and especially the United Kingdom were behind the street protests, an accusation that will surely sound ridiculous to most Iranians. The fact that Obama has been cautious in his reaction makes it all the harder for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to wrap themselves in a nationalist flag.
I think a good historic analogy is President George H.W. Bush’s cautious response to the cracks in the Soviet empire in 1989. Then, many neo-conservatives were livid with Bush for not loudly supporting those trying to topple the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. But Bush’s concern was that the situation was fragile. Those regimes could easily crack down on the protestors and the Soviet Union could send in tanks. Handing the communists reasons to react forcefully would help no one, least of all the protesters. Bush’s basic approach was correct and has been vindicated by history.
One of those neoconservatives, columnist Mark Steyn, points out that the Iranian regime will interpret whatever Obama does or does not do however they see fit, noting that they’re already railing against American “interference” and saying we have no right to lecture them about human rights given, for example, the debacle with the Branch Davidians in Waco during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
There’s a very basic lesson here: For great powers, studied neutrality isn’t an option. Even if you’re genuinely neutral. In the early nineties, the attitude of much of the west to the disintegrating Yugoslavia was summed up in the brute dismissal of James Baker that America didn’t have a dog in this fight. Fair enough. But over in the Balkans junkyard the various mangy old pooches saw it rather differently. And so did the Muslim world, which regarded British and European “neutrality” as a form of complicity in mass murder.
And, of course, the United States, along with our NATO allies, ultimately decided we had no choice but to intervene, first in Bosnia and later in Kosovo.
Like Zakaria, NYT op-ed columnist Roger Cohen thinks the situation permanently changed, observing that Khameini has “lost his aura.”
Khamenei has taken a radical risk. He has factionalized himself, so losing the arbiter’s lofty garb, by aligning himself with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against both Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founding father of the revolution.
He has taunted millions of Iranians by praising their unprecedented participation in an election many now view as a ballot-box putsch. He has ridiculed the notion that an official inquiry into the vote might yield a different result. He has tried pathos and he has tried pounding his lectern. In short, he has lost his aura.
The taboo-breaking response was unequivocal. It’s funny how people’s obsessions come back to bite them. I’ve been hearing about Khamenei’s fear of “velvet revolutions” for months now. There was nothing velvet about Saturday’s clashes. In fact, the initial quest to have Moussavi’s votes properly counted and Ahmadinejad unseated has shifted to a broader confrontation with the regime itself.
Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner ss
For now, however, Obama is keeping his powder dry. Yesterday, he issued his strongest statement yet:
The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.
As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.
Martin Luther King once said – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.
The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler reports that “U.S. officials say Obama is intent on calibrating his comments to the mood of the hour. They say he is seeking to avoid having the demonstrators accused of being American stooges and is trying to preserve the possibility of negotiating directly with the Iranian government over its nuclear program, links to terrorism, Afghanistan and other issues.” He adds that, “Despite increasingly intense Republican criticism, and the passage of resolutions in the House and Senate on Friday that were tougher than the president’s words, U.S. officials say they will stick to their current course.”
Is there a point at which waiting will become intolerable? Perhaps.
They say there is not much the United States can do to influence the situation — except make it worse for the opposition — but they have begun planning for the administration’s response if the crackdown turns very violent.
“We have to watch every day to see what is happening, even while we anticipate several different possibilities and what to do in those circumstances,” one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Within the administration, officials say, Obama’s cautious stance has the support of key senior officials, with disagreements centered mostly on quibbles over a word choice.
It’s a frustrating balancing act that will please no one. It’s not at all clear, however, that there are better options at this point.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.