Two weeks after allegations of election fraud in Iran triggered massive and instantly-iconic protests, partisans of President Barack Obama and his predecessor are debating whose policies deserve more credit for encouraging the Iranian resistance movement.
Experts caution against giving either man too much credit for the so-called “green wave” that formed around moderate presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi.
Many suggest that Washington’s tendency to see U.S. presidents as prime movers in Iranian politics is merely a sign of narcissism, and note that Iran has a history of reformist political mobilizations—like the one in 1997 that brought former president Mohammed Khatami to power.
But as is often the case in Washington, the argument about what brought Iran to this point has more to do with the future than the past—it is largely rooted in differing views of how to proceed rather than concerns for historical accuracy.
Those inclined to credit an “Obama effect” tend to argue that Obama’s strategy of engagement with the Muslim world—on display in his high-profile speech in Cairo earlier this month—is most likely both to further U.S. interests and, ultimately, foster democratic reform in the Middle East.
They argue that a confrontational strategy based around the overthrow of hostile governments is more likely to block democratic reform than to promote it, by allowing authoritarian regimes to use nationalist sentiment to solidify their power.
Those who credit George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” for recent developments in Iran suggest that his preference for “hard power” and “regime change” as tools of “democracy promotion” must remain central to U.S. foreign policy.
Many prominent commentators in the second camp are themselves former Bush administration officials.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, for instance, argues that “George Bush’s Freedom Agenda planted seeds that have started to grow in the Middle East.”
Fleischer told the Washington Post the protestors were at least partly motivated by the fact that “Shiites in particular see Shiites in Iraq having more freedoms than they do. Bush’s tough policies have helped give rise to the reformists and I think we’re witnessing that today.”
Although few Iran experts believe the Iraqi example played a major role in the protests— noting, for instance, that Iraq has barely been mentioned by Iranian reformist leaders—others on the right have echoed the idea of Iraqi inspiration.
The notion that a democratic, pro-Western Iraq would trigger a wave of democratization throughout the Middle East was, of course, one of the original promises of boosters of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The neoconservative-aligned Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, for instance, wrote in a February 2003 Wall Street Journal op-ed that a liberated Iraq would have a “contagion effect” on neighboring Iran.
But more than rehabilitating Bush himself, or even the Iraq war itself, those who take the Iran protests as a vindication of his policies seek to rehabilitate an entire foreign policy mindset that was widely seen as discredited in the wake of Obama’s election.
On June 26, Washington Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson argued that “spring is returning” in the Middle East. (Gerson was chief author of Bush’s 2005 inaugural address, considered the classic statement of the “freedom agenda.”)
It would be an overstatement to say that Obama has renounced democratic reform as a goal. But his administration has acted cautiously, partly out of a belief that an aggressive approach to democracy promotion is likely to backfire—particularly in the Middle East.
In his June 4 Cairo speech, he argued that “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose … are not just American ideas, they are human rights … and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
This view was on display during the Iran protests, as Obama refused to take the aggressive stance toward the Iranian regime that many right-wing commentators were calling for, arguing that doing so risked delegitimizing the protesters.
More broadly, Obama has resisted making regime change the central goal of democracy promotion efforts, and is clearly interested in avoiding “hard power” measures such as military strikes and sanctions.
Rather, his foreign policy has operated on the assumption that engaging with repressive regimes, and offering assurances that the U.S. is not plotting regime change against them, is likely to open up political space for internal dissent and reform.
Obama’s use of the Iranian state’s formal name, the Islamic Republic of Iran, was widely seen as a gesture intended to signal U.S. respect and good intentions.
Many commentators have argued that Obama’s strategy likely played a part in Moussavi’s surge of support in the last days of Iran’s election campaign.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair denied that it was “hubris” for United States to think that Obama had an impact on recent events in Iran. On June 25, Blair said that Obama’s election was viewed from the outside as a “revolutionary change,” and that his Cairo speech “has had a really, really significant impact” on public opinion in the Middle East.
Obama’s approach offers a marked tonal shift from that of his predecessor. Bush’s Middle East policy was rooted in a more confrontational mentality, which sees “evil” powers as unlikely to reform, and believes the United States should support regime change, backed when necessary by military force, as the only long-term solution.
Regarding Iran, which Bush in 2002 called a key member (with Iraq and North Korea) of the “axis of evil,” neoconservatives and their allies continue to maintain that the only satisfactory solution is the outright overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
Bush’s former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, for one, wrote in the June 26 Los Angeles Times that “Obama’s policy, and that of the United States, should be the overthrow of the Islamic revolution of 1979.”
Although Bolton argued that the Iranian people would support regime change, Moussavi and most of his supporters have gone out of their way to emphasize their allegiance to the Islamic Republic and their desire to return to the spirit of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Moussavi said on June 27 that the purpose of his presidential candidacy was “to re-invite to the Islamic Revolution as it had to be, and the Islamic Republic as it has to be.” He called for “a reform by return to the pure principles of revolution.”
Regardless of the protesters’ intentions, their demonstrations have already spurred calls in Washington for more aggressive measures.
On June 26, three senators with strong ties to neoconservatives—John McCain of Arizona, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—unveiled legislation that would increase funding for U.S.-produced radio programming within Iran and for technology to hamper Iran’s ability to restrict internal telecommunications.
Ironically, some experts allege that the most forceful U.S. advocates of democracy promotion in Iran are guilty of ignoring the voices of the Iranian people.
Stepping up democracy assistance programs in Iran “would be precisely the wrong move—not because it would compromise the climate for nuclear negotiations, but because Iran’s own activists have consistently rejected such funding,” wrote Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution on the Foreign Policy magazine website. “They don’t want it, and elections-related news such as the massive reformist vote monitoring effort suggests they don’t need it.”
Daniel Luban writes for the Inter Press Service and PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).