Stand By Them

Iran's Green Movement has extended its hand, fist unclenched, to America. Why will Obama not take it?

Each year since the 1979 siege of the American embassy in Tehran, the Islamic Republic has organised orgies of anti-American vitriol — an annual reminder of this regime’s deranged foundations. 

Yet on the 30th anniversary in October, thousands of protesters flooded the streets chanting messages of conciliation, not invective. The Opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi urged his supporters to “focus attention on the enemy within, not abroad”. The crowds chose to address the President of the US directly, crying: “Obama, either with the murderers or with us.” 

The President could have responded with a speech expressing gratitude for the hand of friendship extended to America by the protesters. He has said nothing. 

Although Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement has continued to grow despite the brutal crackdown that followed the protests against June’s fraudulent elections, Obama has barely engaged with Iranian dissidents. Surely Washington should jump at the chance to support any challenge to this criminal regime, yet it seems that Obama’s vaunted policy of outreach extends to dictators but not to their captive populations.

The administration has deployed a number of facile arguments to defend this reticence, but seems chiefly motivated by a half-baked revival of détente. Spokesmen for the President have also suggested that American support would only undermine the authenticity of the movement, by enabling the regime to paint the protesters as American puppets. 

Neither of these arguments stands up to historical scrutiny. Détente was a boon to the USSR, lending that regime stability by refraining from comment on the Soviet Union’s democratic deficit — the great weakness of any dictatorship. 

The Islamic Republic will always portray its internal enemies as American stooges. Moreover, when properly deployed, moral and financial support from America can enable dissident movements to survive and expand — consider the success of the Solidarity movement in Poland, which received vital assistance from the US and the Vatican, and kick-started the disintegration of the Iron Curtain. 

Obama has downplayed the significance of the Green Movement by arguing that Mousavi is himself a creature of the system, which is true enough. Yet the fact that establishment figures such as Mousavi and former President Mohammad Khatami have allied themselves with pro-democracy activists suggests that the existing regime may be even weaker than conventional wisdom suggests. Like Miklos Nemeth, the communist prime minister who presided over the liberalisation of Hungary in 1989, these men could provide a vehicle for democratic reform in Iran by virtue of their opportunism. 

During his incarceration as a political prisoner, Vaclav Havel wrote: “When one person cries out, ‘The emperor is naked!’ — when a single person breaks the rules of the game…everything suddenly appears in another light, and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing.’ 

The protesters in Iran are breaking the rules of this game — why is President Obama playing along? 

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