Obama's Problem in Iran Lies Not In the Past, But in the Present

It took President Obama two weeks of intensified government repression against protesters in Iran before he moved from cautious commentary to describing the crackdown "violent and unjust."

The acknowledged elephant in the room preventing a more robust American response to the Iranian crisis is the US and British organized coup in 1953, which overthrew the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeqh and brought the 33-year old Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, back to the country as unchallenged ruler. The coup was motivated by Mossadeqh and the Iranian Parliament's decision to nationalize the British controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, and the fear that Soviet-inspired communists might take over the government.

Certainly the American-sponsored overthrow of Mossadeqh, and our subsequent whole-hearted support for the Shah's brutal rule, are ignominious chapters in the history of US foreign policy.

But however blameworthy, does a coup now fifty-five years and fourteen administrations in the past and support for a ruler overthrown thirty years ago really disqualify the United States from standing up forcefully for democracy in Iran today?

It's highly unlikely.

President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khameini are not scared of the United States; they are scared of their own people's desire to live in a country more like the United States. In fact, in poll after poll Iranians have revealed themselves to be among the most pro-American and pro-democracy people in the Muslim majority world.

The Iranian government needs little excuse to beat, jail, and kill its citizens. It's doing a thorough enough job without US interference, and seems poised to do more, although if it goes too far it risks "losing legitimacy in the eyes of its own people," as the President explained it at a June 25 press conference.

President Obama clearly knows this. And he also knows the real reason why he can't be too forceful in supporting the millions of Iranians demanding to have their votes counted. The problem is not with Administrations long past, but with the policies of the current Administration.

The fact is that America counts as its closest allies in the Middle East regimes who routinely rig elections -- that is, when they bother even to have them -- producing governments that have far less legitimacy than that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's today.

Indeed, across the Middle East and North Africa, the substance of Obama's foreign policies remain strikingly similar to, and in some cases more aggressive than, those of President Bush. Saudi Arabia remains our most crucial Arab ally despite the fact that its government is among the world's most repressive and undemocratic (about which Obama has had nothing to say since becoming President).

Rather than encourage Arab democrats, the Obama Administration is improving ties with Libya and returning an Ambassador to Syria, where today we're courting Bashar al-Assad as a "key player" in the region, despite Syria's abysmal record on human rights and democracy.

In Cairo, where the President made only a fleeting allusion to democracy during his "historic" speech last month, President Hosni Mubarak won his most recent reelection bid by deploying the usual assortment of undemocratic techniques. Then he jailed his main opponent, Ayman Nour, for more than three years for election fraud just to make sure everyone got his point.

Yet the Obama Administration, like its predecessors, regularly celebrates him as a key ally and a crucial mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (When will Obama learn that Mubarak's interest is not in peace, but rather in an unending peace process that insures his continued relevance and billions of dollars in no strings attached American aid?)

Whatever his dislike for Ahmadinejad and Iran's support for Islamist militants Mubarak, and his son and potential successor Gemal, are likely breathing easier now that the protests have seemingly been repressed. If young Iranians had succeeded in overturning a repressive and authoritarian system through massive non-violent protests, why wouldn't young Egyptians have followed their example as soon as a suitable opportunity arose?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who defies American wishes in the Occupied Territories without fear of suffering anything more than a mild rebuke, must also be wiping sweat from his brow. Imagine the inspiration Iran's people power movement might have given to Palestinians to finally throw off the shackles of both a co-opted, corrupted and incompetent Palestinian Authority and the useless and ineffectual violence of Hamas, and take matters into their own hands. Imagine the site of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, men and women, children and old people, marching to the so-called "separation wall" or innumerable Israel check points and, like East Germans a generation ago, dismantling them apart brick by brick through disciplined non-violent action.

And now imagine what would happen if, instead of staying on the sidelines in Iran while playing softball with Israel and trying to woo other autocratic regimes into our orbit, President Obama could look the Iranian leadership in the eyes and make the same demand of them that he should be making of all the leaders of the region: democratize and grant freedom to the people under your control.

At least then the brave Iranians risking their lives for democracy, and the long-repressed peoples of the region more broadly, would know that the United States stands up for them.

Ultimately, it is the reality of the Obama Administration's support for a discredited status quo across the region, and not the actions of the Eisenhower Administration half a century ago, that makes it impossible for the United States to play a forceful role advocating for democracy in Iran at this crucial moment in the history of the Islamic Republic, and ours as well. The question is, does Obama have the courage to challenge our own system that Iranians have demonstrated in fighting to change theirs? And if he doesn't, do the rest of us?