The Iranian ambassador to Mexico floated his trial balloon on CNN last week:
"If the CIA wants to kill some people and attribute that to the elements of the government, then choosing a girl would be something good for them because it would have much higher impact. Therefore, we believe, and we are looking into this, to find who the elements were who did this."
What? Was he really suggesting the CIA had assassinated Nega Agha-Soltan in order to use her death as a piece of propaganda against the Iranian government? No one could possibly believe anything so preposterous! Could they? Of course, the ambassador wasn't directing his remarks to Wolf Blitzer's home audience. He was talking to the folks back in Iran. Not the young men and women who've taken to the streets -- they certainly wouldn't believe anything so absurd. And he wasn't targeting the hardliners, either. They don't need to be convinced that America fills the role of that reliable old "Great Satan." No, the ambassador was aiming his nonsense at the vast majority of Iranians, the group that we would call the "undecideds." This and other belligerent actions, like the recent arrest of eight employees of the British embassy for playing a "significant role" in inciting violence, should make it clear why President Obama's measured approach to the Iranian regime's actions is the right stance for the United States. A little history makes the approach even clearer. In January of 1979 the shah succumbed to a year of protests and left the country. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini touched down in Tehran, ending his fourteen-year exile. But the Supreme Leader's appearance didn't seal the fate of the new republic. While the majority of Iranians were devoted to their spiritual leader, they weren't convinced that his dream of a fundamentalist Islamic Republic was the way to go. In the months that followed, there was a power struggle between the country's clerics, led by Khomeini, and a group of more secular, liberal-minded revolutionaries, many of whom had taken up positions in the government. By October of that year, the more forward-looking crowd had consolidated enough power to hold talks in Algiers with a US delegation, led by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Things were moving toward normalization of US-Iranian relations, with the Ayatollah and his dream of a hard line, fundamentalist Islamic state receding into the background. Then the US president gave the Supreme Leader a great gift. The Carter administration's decision to allow the shah into the United States for medical treatment was just what the Ayatollah needed to swing public opinion -- those "undecideds" -- into his column. Everyone in Iran was well aware of Operation Ajax, the 1953 CIA-led overthrow of their democratically elected government, and they were more than ready to believe Khomeini when he told them that the shah's welcome into the states was proof that the CIA was up to its old tricks and planning another coup.
When it was leaked that the government had been in talks with the treacherous United States, passions were inflamed and, in November, the takeover of the American embassy ended any hope of detente. The Islamic Republic, as we know it, was born.
Iran has a chance over the coming weeks and months to move beyond the backward-looking politics that have defined the last three decades. It's clear that the old strategy of blaming its citizens discontent on the unseen hand of foreign forces is being dusted off and tried on again. The United States must walk a fine line between condemnation and falling into the trap of providing Ahmadinejad's camp with useful ammunition.
This revolution -- if that's what it is -- can only come from the Iranian people. As frustrating as it is, the United States must remain on the sidelines, a spectator to what could be a game changer in the Middle East and beyond. Otherwise, it could become the spoiler.