Obama's Three-Part Case on Iran

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AFP / Getty

Supporters of Iran's defeated presidential candidate clash with police in Tehran on June 20

This weekend Iran is roiled by the greatest turmoil since the 1979 revolution, while there is an ongoing debate inside the Obama Administration. One camp has argued that the Iranian political order could be fundamentally shaken in the days ahead, as in Poland in 1989 and Ukraine in 2004. The other camp, which appears to be the majority view among Obama's principal advisors, has thus far predicted that mass unrest will be crushed, as in the 1968 Prague Spring or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and it is dangerous to take the side likely to lose; especially since President Obama wants to move quickly to negotiations with the regime over Iran's nuclear program.

Against that backdrop, the President and his aides have made a three-part case: 1) supporting the opposition could be counterproductive, 2) this is particularly true in light of CIA involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran, and 3) there is little difference between the opposition leader and the current Iranian president.

Let's start with the most recent part of the argument. In an interview on CNBC on June 17, Mr. Obama argued against the U.S. aiding reformers on the basis of the choice between the purported election winner, Ahmadinejad, and protest leader Mousavi. He cautioned that Mousavi is no classical liberal: he had to pass muster with the clerics in Tehran in order even to qualify for the ballot and, as far as foreign policy is concerned, there is no difference. The Administration is correct. But U.S. support for the reform movement need not be centered solely around Mousavi. While he is the fulcrum now of daily protests, the movement he represents is much larger, more complex and has much grander aspirations for change in Iran.

In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power upon the death of his predecessor in the Soviet Union, many Republicans — both Reagan Administration officials and conservative intellectuals — dismissed him as a phony reformer who was only trying to save the Soviet regime. Yet Gorbachev found himself setting in motion processes that he could not control, leading to the rise of Boris Yeltsin, a more radical reformer, and to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. No one knows, of course, whether a leader such as Mousavi, who indeed has shared the mullahs hostility toward the U.S., would follow such a pattern. But the record shows that revolutionary change can come through leaders who come to power seeking to prevent it.

As for the notion that American action is unhelpful to reformers, this simply contradicts historical experience. Successful movements to alter authoritarian and totalitarian regimes almost always depend on internal dissent backed by strong international support. Those key factors are often required to get a regime's enablers — including domestic security forces — to lose confidence and eventually succumb.

Time and again and around the world — from as recently as Tibet in 2008, to Egypt in 2005, to Tiananmen in 1989 — the prospects of reform dim considerably without international support. In fact, we know of no modern democratic evolution or revolution that has succeeded without some support and pressure from the west.

Most famous was the demise of the Eastern Bloc and then the Soviet Union itself, which came on the heels of years of sustained U.S.-led international pressure. Another example is South Korea, where energetic bipartisan U.S. pressure peaked in 1987 when U.S. ambassador Jim Lilley hand delivered a letter from President Reagan urging against a crackdown on protesters. The advice was heeded. Two weeks later the protesters' demands were met, and Korean democracy was born.

Other transitions in places like South Africa, Panama, Taiwan, Georgia, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Indonesia also all involved considerable pressure from the outside world.

Given this history, could Iran be the one exception? President Obama thinks so. In making his case, the CIA's involvement in a coup in 1953 has become Exhibit A.

But even if many Iranians are still suspicious of U.S. intentions because of this coup, which happened at a perilous time in the Cold War, Mr. Obama must also consider that more than two-thirds of Iran's population is under thirty years of age and was born after the 1979 revolution. Their whole lives have been lived under this regime, and many correctly credit it with the misery with which they must contend, rather than a coup that occurred decades before they were born.

We do not want to minimize the myriad tactical dilemmas here in addressing a fluid situation. But the minority camp inside the Obama Administration seems to understand that the threshold dilemma must first be met. The job of an American president is not that of a history professor, but an actor in history. As masses march and bullets fly this weekend, a timeless question cannot be avoided. Even if we cannot know or control the outcome, we have a responsibility, through our actions as a nation, to answer clearly the question: whose side are we on? For President Obama's team, Monday could begin a critical week of reassessment.

Mr. Senor is adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Mr. Whiton is policy advisor to the Foreign Policy Initiative. They served as officials in the administration of George W. Bush, at the State Department, Central Command in Qatar, and with the Coalition in Iraq.