You wouldn’t know it from the passively credulous mainstream media coverage, but Obama’s approach to the events in Iran – which Jennifer characterizes perfectly as “otherworldly” – is quite odd. A particularly striking feature of his stance over the past week, since the Ashura protests ramped up, is the absence of any semblance of a U.S. national perspective on the crisis. Having such a perspective would be the opposite of self-conscious exceptionalism because every nation does it. But Obama’s communications have been abstract, untethered, and perfunctory; he seems not to recognize that what’s going on in Iran has the power to transform Iran’s relations with the United States.
Indeed, the turmoil in Iran could change the face of the Middle East for the foreseeable future. If the regime regains full control through an Iranian “night of the long knives,” the urgency of the existing situation will intensify for the U.S., Israel, and the West. If the Iranian people effectively topple the regime, however, all bets are off. The potential is there for the U.S. and the whole Middle East to reap considerable benefits from a new Iran.
But the opposition movement will not have the latitude to constitute a new regime in a vacuum. Besides the Iranian factions, themselves, Russia and China will be doing their level best to influence the outcome. There is strong evidence of intelligence activity in Iran by both nations (see, for example, here, here, and here) and legitimate suspicion of security support to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. If Khamenei flees the country, however, and the regime looks ready to fall, neither Russia nor China will hesitate to shift its efforts to whichever factional leadership allows it a foothold.
America’s national interest in this situation, from a pragmatic standpoint, is a de-radicalized Iran that has independent and multifaceted foreign relations, not an Iran that is almost exclusively a security client of Russia and China. Achieving this condition would be advantageous for all our national priorities in the Middle East, from free and secure trade to a Palestinian settlement that satisfies Israel’s security needs.
But Obama’s formulations are persistently abstract, as if the U.S. has no concrete concerns at all and is merely observing a troubling interlude from afar. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of 1953; but then we wouldn’t be doing so if we provided greater rhetorical and material support to an obviously indigenous, liberalizing opposition movement. We know it’s not our job to pick Iran’s leaders. But if the only alternative for a promising opposition leader is “assistance” from Russia or China, we will have shaped the outcome to our disadvantage by ignoring the greatest opportunity in a generation for American foreign policy. Whatever may explain Obama’s passivity, it certainly isn’t “realism.”