As U.S. president Barack Obama attempts to navigate the treacherous currents of Iran’s ongoing political crisis, he faces a heated attack on his right flank from neoconservatives and other right-wing hawks, who are urging him both to offer unequivocal support to the protesters supporting moderate presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi and to scuttle his planned diplomatic engagement with Tehran.
So far, Obama’s cautious stance has earned praise from Iranian activists, area experts, and much of the Washington foreign policy establishment, who warn that an enthusiastic U.S. embrace of the protesters would threaten to delegitimize them.
“What happens in Iran regards the people themselves, and it is up to them to make their voices heard,” Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi told the Washington Post on June 18. “I respect [Obama’s] comments on all the events in Iran, but I think it is sufficient.”
Still, the right-wing attacks have put a great deal of political pressure on the president to take a more activist stance, and may pave the way for a domestic political backlash against him if the Iranian government continues to repress the protesters and keeps hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in place.
Leading the charge have been prominent congressional Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), as well as neoconservative pundits such as Robert Kagan, whose June 17 Washington Post column argued that Obama’s “strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the government’s efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition’s efforts.”
Similarly, influential neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer called the administration’s rhetoric “disgraceful” and claimed that Obama was offering “implicit support for this repressive, tyrannical regime.”
Those calling for a firm pro-Moussavi stance “are playing with dynamite,” according to Patrick Disney of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has defended the protesters’ right to demonstrate and denounced the violence against them.
“At best, such grandstanding would give the hardliners in Iran a reason to paint the reformist camp as a stooge of the West; at worst, it could incite the crowds even more and risk blowing the top off an already tumultuous situation,” Disney wrote in the Huffington Post.
Perhaps more significantly, many U.S. hawks are already looking beyond the current political crisis—which some argue will inevitably end in defeat for the protesters—to argue against any diplomatic outreach to Tehran.
These hawks assert that the regime’s alleged rigging of the elections for Ahmadinejad and its repression of demonstrators are evidence that the Islamic Republic’s leadership under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is too brutal and aggressive to be negotiated with.
“Rarely in U.S. history has a foreign policy course been as thoroughly repudiated by events as his approach to Iran in his first months in office,” wrote neoconservative Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens on June 17. “Even Jimmy Carter drew roughly appropriate conclusions about the Iranian regime after the hostages were taken in 1979.”
But underlying this consistent criticism of Obama are a number of tensions in neoconservative attitudes toward Iran. Among hawks, the protesters’ prospects of success remain a matter of debate—as does the question of how to define the opposition’s ultimate goals.
A growing sentiment on the Right—especially outside neoconservative circles—holds that full-blown regime change in Tehran is the only acceptable resolution.
However, Moussavi and his supporters have never called for overthrowing the Islamic Republic, but rather have co-opted the rhetoric and iconography of the Islamic Revolution for their cause.
Moreover, Moussavi—like all candidates in last week’s presidential elections—is adamant that he will continue Iran’s civilian nuclear program, although he has suggested that Iran would be willing to negotiate on the issue of nuclear weapons.
Barring a drastic reversal resulting in outright regime change—which few experts believe is likely to occur—the United States would likely face a similar strategic calculus on the nuclear issue whether Moussavi or Ahmadinejad is president.
It is because of this that some neoconservatives have suggested that an Ahmadinejad victory would be preferable, since his confrontational stance would make it easier to rally popular support for harsher measures against Tehran—such as sanctions or military force.
“If I were enfranchised in this election … I would vote for Ahmadinejad,” Middle East Forum president Daniel Pipes said earlier this month. “I would prefer to have an enemy who’s forthright and obvious, who wakes people up with his outlandish statements.”
This line of thought is echoed by many in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party have historically had close ties with U.S. neoconservatives.
On June 16, Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, told the Knesset that “[I]f the reformist candidate Moussavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived in the international arena as a moderate element.”
For those who view any continued Iranian nuclear progress as an intolerable threat to Israeli or U.S. interests, a reformist victory that stopped short of regime change might be the worst possible outcome, since it would preserve what neoconservatives view as an intrinsically totalitarian and expansionist regime while undercutting support for hawkish anti-Iran policies.
For this reason, neoconservatives have been somewhat hesitant in their embrace of Moussavi, with many of them offering support for the protesters while maintaining that he is little different from Ahmadinejad and that it is Ayatollah Khamenei who wields real power in any case.
One notable exception has been Michael Ledeen, a longtime proponent of regime change in Tehran now based at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who suggests that Moussavi has been radicalized by the events of the past week and bears little resemblance to the moderate seen on the campaign trail.
“Does Moussavi even want to change the system? I think he does, and in any event, I think that’s the wrong question,” Ledeen wrote on June 15. “He is not a revolutionary leader, he is a leader who has been made into a revolutionary by a movement that grew up around him.”
Ledeen also attacked as “embarrassingly silly” the views of Danielle Pletka and Ali Alfoneh, two fellow neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute. In a June 16 The New York Times op-ed, Pletka and Alfoneh had dismissed the opposition movement as “little more than a symbolic protest” that had been “crushed” by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
For Ledeen, by contrast, “The most powerful leaders in Iran are facing a life and death showdown” and Moussavi’s aim is to bring down the Islamic Republic itself.
However, Ledeen’s positions on Iran have always been idiosyncratic even among neoconservatives. He has maintained for years that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse and that Iran’s populace is secular-minded, pro-U.S., and merely waiting for an opportunity to throw off their rulers.
Perhaps due to perceptions that Ledeen is “crying wolf” about the end of the Islamic Republic, other hawks seem less inclined to share his confidence in prospects for revolution in Iran. Most right-wing hawks are preparing to stake out a hard line against Tehran—regardless of whether Moussavi or Ahmadinejad ultimately emerges as the victor.
Daniel Luban writes for the Inter Press Service and PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).