June 21, 2009

Obama's words and Iran's demonstrators

As news coverage of the post-election violence in Iran continues, there are calls for the Obama administration to adopt some stronger language in support of the protesters. Up until a few days ago, President Obama shied away from anything more than being "concerned," claiming that the Iranian regime will use any excuse to blame the situation on the West in general, and the United States in particular.

I have often criticized the President's naivete on things Middle East - and here again he falls into the same trap of viewing events in the region through Western eyes. The Iranians have already blamed the United States and the United Kingdom for much of the violence in Iran - no one takes this seriously, especially not the Iranians. President Obama's citing the CIA-engineered coup of 1953 is a weak attempt to justify not taking a stand in support of young people demanding things we take for granted - freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and fair elections.

In the last few days, Obama has moved from "concerned" to "appalled and outraged," and has called into question the legitimacy of the presidential election. Questioning the legitimacy of the elections is fine, but using the fact that there were no international observers present in Iran is a bit arrogant. Was Obama's election to the American presidency less legitimate because we did not have international - to Obama that means United Nations - observers present?

Being appalled and outraged has not changed the behavior of the Iranian government. Obama claims that he does not want to give the Iranian regime any rhetorical ammunition to further crack down on the protesters by offering them encouragement and moral support. In the eyes of the Iranian leadership, that is tantamount to tacit approval of their actions.

It gets better. The President still appears willing to "engage" the autocratic regime of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At what point does the President cut his losses and admit that these are not the kind of people we should be "engaging," at least not with words?

One easy way for Obama to demonstrate his displeasure would be to publicly rescind the authorization for American diplomats overseas to invite their Iranian counterparts to upcoming July 4 receptions and events. These are usually some of the more important events on the diplomatic calendar, and reversing the authorization will send the right message (unlike his current statements). I initially thought the authorization was a good idea - I have served in U.S. embassies in the Middle East and found my Iranian counterparts quite willing to discuss regional politics and issues - all useful insights. See my earlier article, Iranian diplomats at July 4 parties - why not?

I have changed my mind - I'll answer my own question, "why not?" Since the June 12 elections, the Iranian regime has brutally suppressed any dissent in the country. People have been killed for simply demanding that they be allowed to protest what they believe was a rigged election. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basiji militias have vowed to crack down even harder on the demonstrators, labeling them "terrorists" - something the IRGC knows about. A senior jurist states that Iranian courts will deal with those arrested during the street protests "in an exemplary manner to teach them a lesson."

These are the Iranian officials the President wants to engage. As I said before when he advocated approaching "moderate" members of the Taliban - news flash: there aren't any! - the President is trying to talk to people we should be trying to kill. See my earlier article, Obama's outreach to the Taliban - a victory for the terrorists.

I hope that the President now realizes that his attempts to have any meaningful dialogue with the Iranian regime will be futile, and not well-received by many Americans, especially those who have lost loved ones serving in Iraq whose deaths can be attributed to the IRGC. The regime, as with most autocratic regimes be they theocratic, dictatorial or monarchic, will seek to perpetuate itself at all costs. Khamenei intends to keep Ahmadinejad in the presidency, they intend to develop nuclear weapons and continue their quest for hegemony in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. They will continue on that path, whether or not President Obama "engages" them.

Memo to President Obama: hire a Middle East advisor and then listen to him. Engaging the Iranians will be regarded as tacit approval of their actions. You look like a suitor with hat in hand. Call them out for what they are - repressive state sponsors of terrorism who have no intention of living within diplomatic norms, no matter how you try and spin it.

We do not need a change in American policy, we need a change in the Iranian regime. That's change I can believe in.