Obama’s strategies failing in Iran

Historian says US support of authoritarian allies impedes forceful Iran policy.

Iranian-American protesters
Iranian-Americans have called on Obama to be more forceful with Iranian leaders [GALLO/GETTY]

It took more than a week of intensified government repression against protesters in Iran before Barack Obama, the US president, moved from cautious commentary to describing the crackdown as “violent and unjust”.

The acknowledged elephant in the room preventing a more robust US response to the Iranian crisis is the Anglo-American-organised coup in 1953, which overthrew Mohammed Mossadeqh, the nationalist prime minister, and brought the 33-year-old Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, back to the country as unchallenged ruler.

The coup was motivated by Mossadeqh’s and the Iranian parliament’s decision to nationalise the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, and by the fear that Soviet-inspired communists might take over the government.

The US-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 does a coup 55 years ago really disqualify the US from standing up forcefully for democracy in Iran today?

It is highly unlikely.

US policies flawed

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, do not fear the US but rather their own people’s desire to live in a country more like the US.

In fact, in poll after poll Iranians have revealed themselves to be among the most pro-American and pro-democratic people in the Muslim majority world.

The Iranian government needs little excuse to beat, jail, and otherwise punish its citizens. It is already doing a thorough enough job without US interference, and seems poised to go even further. However, if it goes too far it risks “losing legitimacy in the eyes of its own people,” as Obama said at a June 25 press conference.

Obama is acutely aware of the real reason why he cannot be too forceful in supporting the millions of Iranians demanding to have their votes counted. The problem is not with US administrations long past, but with the policies of the current administration.

The fact is that the US counts as its closest allies in the Middle East regimes who routinely rig elections – if they even bother to hold them at all – which produce governments that are far less legitimate than Ahmadinejad’s today.

The substance of Obama’s foreign policies in the Middle East and North Africa remain in many key areas strikingly similar to, and are in some cases more aggressive than, those of George Bush, his predecessor.

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 are courting Bashar al-Assad as a “key player” in the region, despite his country’s abysmal record on human rights and democracy.

Undemocratic election techniques

Arab pro-reform groups criticised Obama’s support for Egypt’s Mubarak [EPA]

In Cairo, where Obama made only a fleeting allusion to democracy during his “historic” speech last month, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, won his most recent re-election 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.

Does Obama really not understand that Mubarak’s interest is not in peace, but rather in an unending peace process that ensures 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 Gamal, 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 couldn’t young Egyptians have followed their example as soon as a suitable opportunity arose?

It remains a possibility that Egyptians may still find the inspiration to do so, particularly if US and European allies pressure Mubarak’s government to refrain from using an Iranian or Chinese-style crackdown against Egypt’s burgeoning democratic forces.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who defies US 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 ineffectual violence of Hamas, and take matters into their own hands.

Non-violent resistance

Imagine the sight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children marching to the so-called “separation wall” or innumerable Israeli check points and, like East Germans a generation ago, dismantling them apart brick by brick through disciplined non-violent action.
Consider 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, 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: democratise and grant freedom to the peoples 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 US 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 US 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.

Does Obama have the same 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?

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

Source: Al Jazeera