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Obama’s Iran Dilemma

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Posted on Jun 21, 2009

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

    Protesters hit the streets demanding freedom and fair elections. A repressive government strikes back and denounces the dissidents as unpatriotic subversives. Change, even revolution, is in the air.

    Liberals and progressives should be natural allies of those trying to overturn the existing order. They stand for democracy, equality and freedom, or they stand for nothing. In principle, it’s conservatives who preach prudence.

    But there is a tension in the progressive worldview. Usually, the left also favors restraint in foreign policy. It typically prefers negotiation to war, advises caution in the use of American power, and recoils at what it sees as the trigger-happiness of parts of the right. Iraq is Exhibit A for the dangers of presuming that American power can easily remake the world.

    As Iranians battle in the streets to transform their nation, President Obama finds himself caught squarely in this liberal dilemma.

    Before the election, he had set the United States on a path to negotiation with Iran’s government—the very government whose legitimacy was crumbling over the weekend as it cracked down hard on the opposition. As a foreign policy realist, Obama knew that at the end of the current struggle the United States would still have to deal with Iran on the issue of its nuclear program and other matters related to our “long-term interests.”

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    Moreover, it’s true that if the United States government embraced the courageous partisans of Iran’s opposition too warmly, it could discredit them and create a rationale for the repression their foes hoped to unleash anyway.

    But as the protesters gained strength and their valor seized the world’s imagination, the president began realizing that discretion was insufficient. Slowly, the administration’s line has toughened, though not nearly enough to satisfy the many conservatives who were against Obama’s Iranian engagement policy in the first place.

    For Obama’s critics, this one is a no-brainer. Their counsel: Stand tall for freedom and human rights, trash the repressive mullahs, and let the chips fall. If the opposition wins, everybody wins. If the regime cracks down and manages to survive, engagement is dead. That, from the point of view of Obama’s critics, is win-win.

    In fact, Obama was right to exercise caution, both because the United States should not imply false promises to the regime’s opponents that we won’t be able to keep, and because our embrace could, indeed, hurt them. And, paradoxically, European political leaders have been outspoken in support of the Iranian democrats precisely because Obama’s restraint gave them room to act independently.

    But if Obama, as the leader of the U.S. government, has to exercise great care in calculating his moves, rank-and-file progressives and liberals outside the government should be unwavering and unabashed in championing the Iranian push for freedom. Writing last week in The New Republic about how to deal with Iran’s repressive ruling class, the political philosopher Michael Walzer nicely summarized the proper division of labor: “For liberals and leftists—opposition and nothing else; for state diplomats—handshakes and negotiation.”

    Yet events over the weekend were spinning beyond this sensible approach. If the Iranian regime simply suppresses its political adversaries, it will be impossible anytime soon to resume diplomacy as if nothing has happened. And even if the present government survives in the short term, we now know that its hold on power is shaky. There is more opposition in Iran than we—and probably Iranians themselves—knew existed, and thus more opportunity for change.

    That’s why Obama had to toughen his rhetoric. He sent a clear message on Saturday when he called on the Iranian government “to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people” and warned that it could not expect “the respect of the international community” if it failed to “respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.”

    The president, in concert with our allies, is now telling the Iranian regime that it will pay a price for repression. The bottom line of American policy must be that no matter how committed we are to negotiation, we are also committed democrats.

    Obama’s initial caution served the interests of freedom by making clear that the revolt against Iran’s flawed election is homegrown. As the struggle continues, we cannot pretend that we are indifferent to its outcome.

    It’s not easy to walk the progressive path. But Obama has always said that he knows how to deal with complexity. This is his chance to prove it.
   
    E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
    © 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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By Marshall, June 22, 2009 at 11:31 pm Link to this comment

Iran’s nuclear aspirations should be of paramount importance to the U.S. and our stance on the uprising should be in service to that concern.  Since the current hard line ruling council in Iran has no intention of relinquishing its nuclear goals, the only outcome that holds any chance of success is the ascension of more moderate voices in the government.  While the likelyhood of achieving this success may be remote, the alternative - continuing to deal with the intransigence of the current regime - is guaranteed to fail.  If Obama is serious about preventing Iranian nuclear proliferation as he claims to be, then the U.S. should do its best to encourage the internal divisions going on in Iran’s ruling council in the hopes of facilitating change to a more moderate regime.

This encouragement is not only in line with Progressive motivations, but it’s the best path to avoiding military confrontation with Iran; which will happen under the current course of engagement - either by Israel or by the U.S..  If we can help strengthen moderate voices within the country, or in any way contribute to the possible collapse of the hard line theocracy, we should be willing to do so.  And taking a hands-off policy towards this uprising doesn’t further that aim.

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By Nap, June 22, 2009 at 10:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Maybe the time it takes for praising ones own sob and admonition of a freelance one is longer then a change of clothing in a phone boot.

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 22, 2009 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment

Dionne writes:

“That’s why Obama had to toughen his rhetoric. He sent a clear message on Saturday when he called on the Iranian government “to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people” and warned that it could not expect “the respect of the international community” if it failed to “respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.” ...The president, in concert with our allies, is now telling the Iranian regime that it will pay a price for repression.

Um, exactly how would Obama demonstrate this withholding of respect? Go back on his commitment to talk to the Iranians instead of bombing them? Who likes that idea besides the Likudniks? And how does this make us “progressives”, and how does it further American interests in any objective sense whatsoever, and how many Iranians would have to die for Obama’s “progressive” display of disrespect?

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By rockinrobin, June 22, 2009 at 6:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Within the first week after Hillary C was named Sec of State in a Murdoch owned newspaper mailtribune.com on an inside page (i read while waiting to get new battery installed) she was saying they are going to war with Iran IRAN folks, and nuclear weapons could possibly be used. *****NEWS FLASH FOLKS! the PEOPLE with the PROBLEM GOV who has NUCLEAR WEAPONS is the USA! Every other NATION KNOWS this: they are busy carrying out HITLERS AGENDA: isn’t it time WE ALL WOKE UP to the REALIZATION that it is OUR GOV who is the #1 problem in the WORLD?
“enhanced interrogation” my FOOT! http://www.billmoyersjournal.com; using INQUISTION TORTURES and have EXCEEDED the sick sadism & sexual grossness the Nazi’s used; http://www.torturingdemocracy.org; http://www.truthout.org; BE ALERT FOLKS!

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By Ed Harges, June 22, 2009 at 5:56 pm Link to this comment

re: By Virginia777, June 22 at 8:05 pm:

LOL! It’s hard work 2 B R D, eh?

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By yours truly, June 22, 2009 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What Sort Of Society Is This Here Green Revolution About To Give Birth To?

“Depends on whether the revolutionaries stay permanently engaged.”

“If they do?”

“It’ll be up to them, what their society is to be like.”

“But if they don’t stay permanently engaged?”

“The moment they let go, lickety-split, they’ll be back in chains again, worse off than before.”

“Anything else?”

“No repeat of what happened a half-century ago when a CIA operative bribed Iranians into overthrowing their democratically elected prime minister.”

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By Virginia777, June 22, 2009 at 5:08 pm Link to this comment

“The evidence is overwhelming that Americans, especially neocon supporters of Israel, are at the forefront of yet another pre-packaged Color Revolution.”

this is exactly what is happening! well put.

And we are not going to accept this “package”.

no thanks!

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Virginia777's avatar

By Virginia777, June 22, 2009 at 5:05 pm Link to this comment

Ardee you are stuck in a losing (if perhaps well-paid) argument,

I mean really, can you imagine being a Zionist Troll on Truthdig the same day Chris Hedges’ article ” Iran Had a Democracy Before We Took It Away” comes out?

I almost feel sorry for you

(I said almost)

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By KDelphi, June 22, 2009 at 3:53 pm Link to this comment

I would like to know, exactly what is it that those who “wish to get involved” would have the uS do??

What right do we have to tell other countries govts what to do?? NONE!

Get the log out of your own eye, as they say.

I thought he was talking about Obama again here:

“Protesters hit the streets demanding freedom and fair elections. A repressive government strikes back and denounces the dissidents as unpatriotic subversives. Change, even revolution, is in the air.

  Liberals and progressives should be natural allies of those trying to overturn the existing order. They stand for democracy, equality and freedom, or they stand for nothing. In principle, it’s conservatives who preach prudence.”


There is NO “Obamaninization ” of Iran ,folks! Stop it!! It is deja vu all over again! Doesnt anyone see the same pattern that got most ‘Merkins behind the invasion of Iraq?

All who “support this”—YOU GO! You go Dionne! Its not too late!

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 22, 2009 at 2:23 pm Link to this comment

Re: By ardee, June 22 at 4:58 pm:

Ardee, I haven’t shown any higher regard for my opinions than you have for your own. And I haven’t called anybody “excrement”, either. It’s you who’s got maturation issues.

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By ardee, June 22, 2009 at 1:58 pm Link to this comment

Ed Harges, June 22 at 12:44 pm #

re: By ardee, June 22 at 5:49 am:

Ardee, you are willfully blind.
.....................

and you, Mr. Harges, seem to believe yourself the arbiter of political opinion and are above any allowance of opinion by anyone else unless that opinion coincides with your own.

Most grow out of such as this shortly after puberty.

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 22, 2009 at 1:24 pm Link to this comment

Where is the “dilemma” here? It’s an absolute no-brainer: stay the fk out of it.

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By felicity, June 22, 2009 at 11:38 am Link to this comment

Reason, and history, have it that keeping your enemies at each others throats and/or keeping them embroiled in internal strife (ala Iraq) is the most expedient method of keeping them, singly or in unison, from attacking you.

It seems to me that this well-tested truth needs to be applied when evaluating what’s been happening in the Middle East for decades.

That said, I don’t pick up an ‘or else’ in Obama’s statements on Iran, but I do think E.J. does.

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Paul_GA's avatar

By Paul_GA, June 22, 2009 at 10:41 am Link to this comment

“America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” ~ John Quincy Adams

This country’s problem is, it’s forgotten the wisdom of its past leaders.

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 22, 2009 at 9:44 am Link to this comment

re: By ardee, June 22 at 5:49 am:

Ardee, you are willfully blind. The evidence is overwhelming that Americans, especially neocon supporters of Israel, are at the forefront of yet another pre-packaged Color Revolution. It doesn’t matter that many of the demonstrators are sincere. As Steve Weissman explains, Iran’s democracy is being “diddled” by promoters of the US-Israeli imperium who are cynically playing with the lives of these protesters:

Watching the protesters in Tehran, many Americans feel a strong sense of empathy, exhilaration and hope. I strongly share those feelings, especially since I know firsthand the danger the protesters face from government thugs on motorcycles, provocateurs and the secret police. But none of this should blind us to the likelihood that our own government is dangerously meddling in Iran’s internal affairs and playing with the lives of those protesters.

http://www.truthout.org/061809J

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By P. T., June 22, 2009 at 8:21 am Link to this comment

“The Iranian people are struggling to attain the governance they desire and deserve.”


Talk about assumption.

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By Clonakilty32, June 22, 2009 at 6:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I personally don’t think the United States had anything to do with the demonstrations but given the history and our admitted involvement in 1953 in overthrowing the Iranian government at the time can you not expect the present government to use that to raise suspicions of American instigation?  People like to think of our country as the guys in the white hats, but truly we have a really shitty history of manipulating foriegn governments for our own gain.

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By ardee, June 22, 2009 at 2:49 am Link to this comment

Not enough information to warrant such accusations against America meddling in Iranian politics. All conjecture and supposition based, of course, upon our past actions and assumptions about this election.

The Iranian people are struggling to attain the governance they desire and deserve. We here in America should be doing exactly the same thing.

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By P. T., June 22, 2009 at 12:28 am Link to this comment

The Iran protests have “Made in America” stamped all over them.  Click on http://www.counterpunch.org/roberts06192009.html

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