The 2009 election in Iran has exposed the problematic dimensions of President Barack Obama’s “soft power” approach. By any standard this election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be a sham. Millions of votes were counted in just two hours after the polls closed. Internet sites were shut down. Protestors were beaten and arrested. And in the village where Mir Hossein Mousavi, the chief rival to Ahmadinejad, resides, anecdotal evidence indicates widespread tampering.
Yet, even though Vice President Joe Biden said there is “some real doubt” about the election result, the United States government is committed to continued efforts at negotiation in order to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. “Talks with Iran,” it was noted, “are not a reward for good behavior, they are only the consequence” of Obama’s decision that talks with Iranian leaders are in our national security interest.
But is that really the case?
A thunderstorm of protest across Iran clearly demonstrates that many Iranians, perhaps most Iranians, feel cheated. It appears as if the so-called “green revolution” has traction with a passion for change evident among youthful demonstrators on the streets of every major Iranian city. Despite efforts at suppression by government authorities, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter among other outlets offer a communications network for the disenchanted. As I watched YouTube clips from the comforts of my home, I heard crowds shouting, “Death to the dictator.”
Mousavi has formally asked the Guardian Council to annul the election result he described as a fraud. But there is little doubt his plea will not be heeded. How this discontent will unfold remains to be seen, but a network of young, middle class dissenters could emerge as a force putting pressure on Ahmadinejad and Iran’s theocracy to take a less confrontational posture toward the West.
This, of course, is precisely the dilemma Obama now faces. On one hand, he has staked out a position as a negotiator with the Guardian Council – the 12-member clerical body associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On the other hand, he must recognize that overtures towards the existing regime run headlong into the emerging grassroots spirit for change. If through negotiation he legitimizes the mullahs, he will lose the youthful demonstrators who have risked their lives for liberalization.
The issue the president must address is which side of history he will be on. Will he consider the passion for change inexorable or will he, like Ahmadinejad, consider the demonstrations like unrest after a soccer match?
The backdrop for Obama’s stance is the Iranian enrichment of uranium and probable development of nuclear weapons. Should the president embrace the view of demonstrators, his negotiation position will be compromised. Should he negotiate with the mullahs lending legitimacy to the present regime, he will be seen as the opponent of democratic reform. What if the negotiations do not result in the cessation of Iran’s nuclear program? Will this investment of political capital be viewed as a foolish gesture that only alienated those who might bring about a regime change?
History clearly has a way of intruding on grand designs. The demonstrations could be the beginning of a major shift in the fortunes of Iran. A stable Iran, without imperial goals, could set in motion reforms that might cascade through the region. Is this the beginning of the end for the Iranian theocratic state or is this merely a momentary poise in the move for ever tighter controls on the Iranian people?
Obama had better be prepared to answer these questions since the pace of change could be unpredictable. On one matter there cannot be any doubt: The confidence in “soft power” espoused by the president has been called into question. He sits on the horns of a dilemma and historical movements will decide questions he has only started to consider.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and “America's Secular Challenge” (Encounter Books).
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