Obama's Iran Dilemma

How far will the Iranian opposition go? And how should the president react to Iran's election crisis?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 8:41 AM EDT

The Iranian election fiasco—or coup—poses a challenge for President Barack Obama. How should he continue his policy of engagement with a regime that appears to have stolen an election so brazenly? The United States does routinely deal with autocrats and democracy-suppressers around the world: Egypt, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and others. Few suggest that Washington shouldn't have diplomatic relations with Beijing until China becomes a multi-party state with free elections. But should Obama withhold his support for the movement for reform and democracy in Iran? Could he do so without causing harm by tainting the opposition (Washington is not so popular in Iran)? And could he do so without killing the possibility of reaching any future accommodation with the present leaders of Tehran, who could end up staying in charge for years to come? No doubt, neocons and others who have been calling for a hardline on Iran will exploit Tehran's crackdown on democracy and make the ready-for-cable argument that the West cannot deal with the Iranian regime and there's only one course of action: get tough and tougher and tougher.

On Saturday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs released a statement: "Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians. We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities." This brief statement did not reflect the dilemma faced by Obama.

And that dilemma will be shaped by how the Iranian opposition led by Mir Hossein Mousavi responds to the crisis. With the dust still swirling, there's no telling yet what direction the opposition will take. Will it fade and Ahmadinejad consolidate power? Will it spread and force some sort of societal show-down that threatens the autocrats of Allah?

I subscribe to a listserv run by Middle East expert Gary Sick, and for the past few days analysts who know Iran well have been discussing and debating on this list what could happen in Iran. Below are two takes from participants, which I am reprinting with their permission.

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Babak Rahimi is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California, San Diego, who is now in Iran studying the elections. He reports:

As I write this, the echoes of “Allah Akbar” can be heard from the neighboring streets and houses in Tehran, where I have been conducting research on the elections since March. This is the latest innovative method by the pro-Mousavi camp to oppose the results of the election. Such innovation is rooted in the revolutionary tactics of 1979, when symbolic acts of defiance set the stage for a mass uprising that culminated in the toppling of the Pahlavi regime. Revolutionary traditions die hard.
I do not want to suggest that a certain revolution is underway in Iran, but surely a major crisis of legitimacy has taken place here which could potentially become a source of considerable tension for years to come.
With regards to the electoral map, let me challenge some myths that have been articulated by some in the media.
Ahmadinejad won the rural votes: Maybe! We basically do not have hard evidence that the rural regions gave overwhelming support to the current president. Based on my fieldwork, in Bushehr, Khuzestan and Lurestan, I have come across major tensions between provincial officials, especially the local Friday Imams, and Ahmadinejad administrative officials based in Tehran. The Friday Imam of the port-city of Asalooyeh is a case in point. During the president’s final visit to the province of Bushehr, the Imam refused to meet the president, an act of defiance which was praised by many locals.
Also, during my travels in the provinces, I conducted informal interviews in the rural regions.  The level of support for Ahmadinejad was considerably lower than I expected. In fact, I heard some of the most ferocious objections to the administration in the rural regions.
This is of course not a scientific survey and does not reflect the view of the entire country. But there is something here that could challenge this common perception advanced by some analysts.
The Mousavi movement is limited to the Northern Tehran: False! True, Ahmadinejad’s populist policies have attracted many from the working class from southern Tehran, but many are also highly frustrated with the regime. During a pro-Mousavi political rally few days ago, I met and interviewed a number of southern Tehrani men who described Mousavi as the man of the "Mostazafin." I have a number of different examples that would reveal class was not (most likely) the determining factor in the election.
Unlike the 2005 elections, nationalism, in its macho-militaristic form, has become more of a central issue to Ahmadinejad supporters. To give an example, two days ago I met a wealthy Iranian, with a British passport, declare his support for the current president. Why? “Ahmadinejad has made Iran a superpower in the region,” he enthusiastically described.

Rahimi seems quasi-optimistic that anti-regime sentiment is widely spread throughout the country and that it will not easily disappear--whatever happens in the coming days.

Wayne White was a top Near East analyst at the State Department for years and is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute. His view is a clear-cut one: the opposition has to turn up the heat or give up the kitchen.

There are reports that election protests are becoming more scattered, despite some continuing clashes here and there. This would be consistent with many scenarios in which a tough-minded authoritarian regime faces a potentially problematic popular reaction, deals with it aggressively and heavy-handedly, and then public manifestations of opposition fade out. This would then be followed by a far more systematic regime effort to seek out and arrest hundreds--even thousands--of apparent ringleaders to use as examples in order to intimidate still further the opposition as power is consolidated once again....
In the face of harsh repression like this, there may only be one real option for the opposition to effect meaningful short-term change: get rough or stand down; confront a coup with a popular countercoup, or wait and hope for better days. I know it is vastly easier for me to sit back here in the States and comment that either the opposition organizes mass street action in which it is willing to inflict and take substantial casualties or it almost inevitably fails in its clearest near-term objective, but that probably is, I fear, the bottom line in this particular instance. The so-called coup itself has demonstrated just how little the emerging new order cares about matters such demonstrations and scuffles (save perhaps especially defiant ones placing many hundreds of thousands on the street, which no longer appears to be happening). That is how the 1979 revolution elbowed its way to power, sacrificing thousands of its people in bloody confrontations with the Shah's security forces.
In today's situation, however, there are complications with even this far more radical and dangerous approach. Many other Iranians would likely take to the streets in support of the security forces to defend the regime and Ahmadinejad. Additionally, it is unknown whether a substantial number among the security forces would change sides in the face of such fierce opposition--a critical aspect of the events of 1979 (or whether major elements of the army would be willing to join the fray in order to counter the Revolutionary Guard). Mousavi & Co. also do not represent the sort of galvanizing--practically messianic--presence that was Khomeini in those heady days of late 1978 and early 1979.
One could go on and on about the great difficulties involving in mounting a far more determined and almost certainly very violent challenge beyond simply the potentially dreadful sacrifice in lives. Nonetheless, we probably have reaching the point--or are fast approaching it--at which this, essentially, is, again, the bottom line (something in which Ahmadinejad and other regime hardliners doubtless take great comfort). So long as pro-reform or anti-authoritarian forces are unwilling (or effectively incapable) of pressing well beyond the boundaries of dissent--already much-compressed--set for them by those now dominating the regime, they may well be condemned to endure still more. Despite the control of several institutions, a clearer popular mandate, and a far freer press, Khatami failed to effect much lasting change, in large measure because he and his supporters dared not (or did not even wish to) wander into such dangerous territory when boldly countered by the determined and bloodyminded hardliners dominating the regime.
I do not argue that the events of the past two days are without profound impact--possibly so momentous as to set up the eventual collapse of the increasingly authoritarian structure apparently now being put in place. However, quite some time may be required to effect significant change toward that end.

On Monday morning, White emailed me an update of his analysis:

Today, in fact, we are seeing just the sort of call on the part of Mousavi which probably dooms the protests over the long-term:  calling off the major protest rally in the face of possible government use of lethal force.  Although, again, it is easy for me to prognosticate from the safety of my mountain fortress, a movement (and its leader) determined to wrest power from bloody-minded authoritarian forces must be willing to defy authority even in the face of potentially serious casualties.  He apparently feels he must pursue the legal challenge route until exhausted, but its chances of success are extremely remote--and this ruling clique already has shown its own utter contempt for legalities in any case.
I was watching the iPod bit last night in which, what, less than a dozen police on motorcycles with nothing more than batons took on a dense crowd of a thousand or more at close quarters.  Instead of largely heading for the hills, such a crowd could easily have closed in behind the police and taken them all down, not just one.  The tipping point in many of these situations is when the police become either as fearful as the demonstrators, more so, or even grow thoroughly sickened by the violence they have been ordered to carry out.  That crucial moment is far less likely to come if demonstrators stand down or shrink back in the face of the mere threat of violence.  In fact, outrageous acts of violence committed by authorities often help mobilize a truly viable & volatile opposition (not to mention further alienating an already-wavering international community).
For one thing, I fear we have in Mousavi another Khatami: a well-meaning reformist who has been himself so much a part of the current system and unused to the tough realities of street politics that he is psychologically unable to break fully with that system--not a thoroughgoing oppositionist determined to go to the limits of defiance.
I should clarify that "wresting power" from the authorities isn't even the goal of much of the opposition at this point, let alone Mousavi.  But even to push back effectively against the powers that be so as to make them blink demands more robust and boldy defiant action.
And, as we've seen in situations in the past that began as widespread, heated protests against abusive of power, not revolutions, often further, more brazen abuses of power eventually transform vigorous reform efforts into revolutionary movements.
Yet another apparent weakness in the opposition with respect to the above is leadership:  I can see no evidence of any coherent street leadership that can harness the power of the opposition, perhaps even supplanting the more timid Mousavi if necessary to defend the demonstrators and take the bolder measures noted above.

Obama's problem may be that he has to deal with half an opposition in Iran--that is, one that captures global attention but isn't as serious or as competent as movements elsewhere that toppled tyrannical regimes. (Think of the Ukrainian opposition.) In other words, Mousavi is not a good horse to bet on--even if he has the moral high ground. The tricky part for Obama will be figuring out how to use this election--however it ultimately plays out--to his advantage. To do so, his aides ought to be consulting with many of the experts on and off Sick's list, even though there is hardly a consensus among them regarding what will happen in Iran.

Update: Although Mousavi tried to call off a major demonstration in Tehran today, the protest went ahead, and Mousavi addressed the crowd.