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Has the Iranian Regime Been Strengthened?

The bankruptcy of the Obama administration’s stillborn attempt at “engagement” with Tehran is no longer in doubt. The question is whether Washington will draw the proper conclusions and adjust its policy.

An interesting interpretation of the situation comes from M. K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat writing for the Asia Times. He points out that Iran has received strong support from China throughout the tumult over the stolen presidential election and that Syria has remained a steadfast ally to Iran also, despite a flirtation with Obama.

More to the point, Bhadrakumar’s piece directly contradicts much of what has been written about the Iranian regime in recent weeks. Rather than being weakened by the election fiasco and the subsequent protests, he sees the regime — Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in particular — as strengthened by recent events. His thesis holds that the regime is more united than ever in its resolve to hold onto power and that Ahmadinejad’s challenger Moussavi is completely isolated. Bhadrakumar believes Iran can retaliate against efforts to isolate it by complicating American efforts in Afghanistan.

Bhadrakumar is clearly sympathetic to the Islamic regime since he thinks that Ahmadinejad’s victory is legitimate. More absurdly, he seems to give some credence to the Islamist claim that the massive demonstrations against Ahmadinejad were ginned up by Western intelligence services. He laments Obama’s hardening stance against Iran — presumably as a result of pressure by U.S. public opinion — and advocates further appeasement of the regime after a “decent interval,” the same phrase employed by the Times’ Roger Cohen.

What can we make of this? First, I think Bhadrakumar’s point about the regime’s consolidated unity is well taken. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have demonstrated that they are in full control of the armed forces and can employ them without encountering dissent among their ranks. But his idea that Khamenei is now in a stronger position than before is nonsense. What the elections showed is that the Iranian version of democracy was always a sham. The Islamist clerics ruling that country with an iron fist can no longer pretend they do so with the consent of their people. This would give tremendous leverage to President Obama, should he decide to lead the West toward new stringent sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Once the regime has shown a willingness to kill its own people with impunity, sympathy abroad has been diminished.

By now, President Obama must realize it is no longer possible to pretend that a policy of making nice with Islamist tyrants will achieve any of America’s objectives. But Obama’s popularity abroad gives him a unique chance to rally the world in isolating Iran. Obama may have entered office thinking he could sweet talk the Iranian nuclear threat away. But his gift of oratory can still be put to good use in the cause of both regional peace and Iranian freedom. Rather than worrying about whether Khamenei thinks he’s “meddling” or what the regime’s apologists say about him, Obama has an opportunity to lead on an issue of vital importance that will, due to Iran’s steady progress on the nuclear front, sooner or later be brought back to the top of his agenda. The question now is whether he has the wisdom and the courage to act.


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