Obama's Embrace of Iran's Protest Movement Is an Act of Realism

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

THE POLITICAL crisis in Iran will not end anytime soon. Though the government has managed, through brute force and uncounted killings, to drive most protesters from Tehran's streets for now, the popular opposition movement remains very much alive. The split between hard-liners and relative moderates at the most senior levels of power, too, is open and unresolved. The huge stakes of this struggle and the likelihood that it will persist for weeks or months require a fundamental change in U.S. posture. To his credit, President Obama began to deliver it yesterday.

The president's first and most important step was to side unambiguously with the Iranian people who "stand up for justice" and against "the threats, the beatings and imprisonments" delivered by the beleaguered regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He said he had watched the video of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman whose brutal slaying has been broadcast across the Internet, calling it "searing" and "heartbreaking." He said: "It's important for us to make sure that -- that we let the Iranian people know that we are watching what's happening, that they are not alone in this process."

Mr. Obama also took an important step back from the administration's plans to seek an early dialogue with Mr. Khamenei and his hardline disciple, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "What's happened in Iran is profound, and we're still waiting to see how it plays itself out," he said. As newly described by the president, engagement is not an initiative from the United States but "a path available to Iran" that is linked to "how they handle the dissent within their own country." So far, as the president noted, "what we've seen . . . is not encouraging in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take."

In making this shift Mr. Obama did not necessarily yield to the Republican senators who have been criticizing him for softness; nor did he return to the Bush administration's policy of isolating Iran. Instead, he was embracing the reality of what has happened over the past few days. The popular uprising, if it continues, could bring about an extraordinary change in Iran and across the Middle East. Even an advantage to the relative moderates among the clerical elite could lead to an easing of regional tensions -- if not necessarily an end to the Iranian nuclear program. On the other hand, if Mr. Khamenei succeeds in restoring order by force, the already-slim prospect of rapprochement with the West would be reduced to the vanishing point, whatever the administration's tactics.

Mr. Obama was careful not to rule out recognition of a new government under Mr. Ahmadinejad, and he refused to spell out what the eventual consequences of its brutality might be. But his shift of attitude was important. There may not be much the United States can do to help the cause of freedom in Iran, other than offer moral support, but it could deliver a crippling blow to that movement if it legitimizes Mr. Khamenei through an early diplomatic engagement. As the president said, "The most important thing for the Iranian government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States." As urgent as it is to address the threat of Tehran's nuclear program, the United States and its allies must support Iran's popular movement as long as it has life.

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