Obama's Message to Iran

By David Ignatius
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The stormy Iranian elections are one more sign of how the world has been shaken up in the age of Barack Obama. The ruling mullahs are nervous about a threat to the regime; the opposition is in the streets protesting what they assert is a rigged election. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is claiming a new mandate, but what the world sees is the regime's vulnerability.

And what should Obama say about this ferment in Iran, a process that he has subtly encouraged? I'd argue that he should continue with the line he took in his Cairo speech two weeks ago -- speaking directly to Muslim publics even as he proposes dialogue with the repressive regimes that govern Iran and many other nations.

Obama would make a mistake if he seemed to meddle in Iranian politics. That would give the mullahs the foreign enemy they need to discredit the reformers. Obama struck the right tone when he said late Monday: "The world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was." The basic message is: We support the Iranian people and their democracy. Any change in how Iran is governed is their decision, not America's.

The wild card is whether the young protesters will stay in the streets, forcing the mullahs to take strong, and potentially destabilizing, action against them. One knowledgeable former CIA officer says that Iranian protests appear to be "loosely organized," with no outside help. Another former CIA officer who specialized in Iran says the regime's fears of a "color revolution," as in Georgia or Ukraine, are premature. But he warns: "It could get interesting as the summer wears on."

U.S. intelligence officials tell me that it's quite possible that Ahmadinejad actually did win Friday's election -- though with a lower total than the 63 percent that the regime is claiming. "It would appear that the results are inflated," said one official, reflecting what he said was the preliminary judgment of the intelligence community. But he cautioned: "Our ability to peer into the Iranian election machinery is very limited."

Obama's opening to Iran seems to have encouraged the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister who finished second in the official results -- and whose supporters have been rioting the past few days. "A growing portion of the Iranian public sees an opening with the U.S. as positive, and Obama has encouraged that," the intelligence official explained.

The well-spoken Mousavi and his charismatic wife were a tonic for Iranians who have been embarrassed by Ahmadinejad's crude tirades. "They are tired of being laughed at and spurned," said the intelligence official, who closely monitors information from Iran and other Muslim countries.

U.S. intelligence officials consulted with the White House as speechwriters were preparing the Cairo address -- seeking to calibrate the message in a way that would be most effective in countering Muslim extremists. These officials believe that Obama, with his coolly rational approach, is suggesting a new pathway for young people who might otherwise be tempted by jihadist rhetoric.

"What the president has done thus far is create a strategic framework for understanding the U.S. in a different way," said a second intelligence official. Obama is "chipping away" at the radical narrative and "increasing the number of alternatives to that radical view," he explained. "He's making more attractive the idea that change can occur outside the radicalization process."

A similar analysis of Obama's outreach to the Muslim world comes from Tawfik Hamid, a former jihadist from Egypt who was once part of a network that included Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 official in al-Qaeda. Hamid argued in an interview that Obama has encouraged "critical thinking" among young Muslims -- pushing them to transcend the simple categories of halal (pure and Islamic) and haram (impure and un-Islamic). Hamid recalled that among his jihadist group in Cairo, there was a saying: al fikr kufr, which loosely translates as "To think makes you an infidel." Obama challenges that.

Reason vs. unreason; outreach vs. closed minds; connection with the modern world vs. isolation and backwardness; freedom vs. repression. This is the shape of the debate in Iran and much of the rest of the Muslim world as the age of Obama moves forward. For once, it's an argument that puts America firmly (but unobtrusively) on the side of the people. What we're seeing in Tehran is a reminder that millions of Muslims hunger for change -- but they want to make it themselves.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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