THE grass-roots protests that have engulfed Iran since its presidential election last week have grabbed America’s attention and captured headlines — unfortunately, so has the clamor from neoconservatives urging President Obama to denounce the voting as a sham and insert ourselves directly in Iran’s unrest.
No less a figure than Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, has denounced President Obama’s response as “tepid.” He has also claimed that “if we are steadfast eventually the Iranian people will prevail.”
Mr. McCain’s rhetoric, of course, would be cathartic for any American policy maker weary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hostile message of division. We are all inspired by Iran’s peaceful demonstrations, the likes of which have not been seen there in three decades. Our sympathies are with those Iranians who seek a more respectful, cooperative relationship with the world. Watching heartbreaking video images of Basij paramilitaries terrorizing protesters, we feel the temptation to respond emotionally.
There’s just one problem. If we actually want to empower the Iranian people, we have to understand how our words can be manipulated and used against us to strengthen the clerical establishment, distract Iranians from a failing economy and rally a fiercely independent populace against outside interference. Iran’s hard-liners are already working hard to pin the election dispute, and the protests, as the result of American meddling. On Wednesday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry chastised American officials for “interventionist” statements. Government complaints of slanted coverage by the foreign press are rising in pitch.
We can’t escape the reality that for reformers in Tehran to have any hope for success, Iran’s election must be about Iran — not America. And if the street protests of the last days have taught us anything, it is that this is an Iranian moment, not an American one.
To understand this, we need only listen to the demonstrators. Their signs, slogans and Twitter postings say nothing about getting help from Washington — instead they are adapting the language of their own revolution. When Iranians shout “Allahu Akbar” from rooftops, they are repackaging the signature gesture of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mir Hussein Moussavi, the leading reformist presidential candidate, has advocated a more conciliatory approach to America. But his political legitimacy comes from his revolutionary credentials for helping overthrow an American-backed shah — a history that today helps protect protesters against accusations of being an American “fifth column.”
Iran’s internal change is happening on two levels: on the streets, but also within the clerical establishment. Ultimately, no matter who wins the election, our fundamental security challenge will be the same — preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That will take patient effort, and premature engagement in Iran’s domestic politics may well make negotiations more difficult.
What comes next in Iran is unclear. What is clear is that the tough talk that Senator McCain advocates got us nowhere for the last eight years. Our saber-rattling only empowered hard-liners and put reformers on the defensive. An Iranian president who advocated a “dialogue among civilizations” and societal reforms was replaced by one who denied the Holocaust and routinely called for the destruction of Israel.
Meanwhile, Iran’s influence in the Middle East expanded and it made considerable progress on its nuclear program.
The last thing we should do is give Mr. Ahmadinejad an opportunity to evoke the 1953 American-sponsored coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power. Doing so would only allow him to cast himself as a modern-day Mossadegh, standing up for principle against a Western puppet.
Words are important. President Obama has made that clear in devising a new approach to Iran and the wider Muslim world. In offering negotiation and conciliation, he has put the region’s extremists on the defensive.
We have seen the results of this new vision already. His outreach may have helped to make a difference in the election last week in Lebanon, where a pro-Western coalition surprised many by winning a resounding victory.
We’re seeing signs that it’s having an impact in Iran as well. Returning to harsh criticism now would only erase this progress, empower hard-liners in Iran who want to see negotiations fail and undercut those who have risen up in support of a better relationship.