The realism of seeking democracy in Iran

By Leon Wieseltier
Friday, June 25, 2010

In a false and heartless June 21 op-ed column, "The fantasy of an Iranian revolution," Fareed Zakaria demonstrated -- again -- that he is the consummate spokesman for the shibboleths of the White House and for the smooth new worldliness, the at-the-highest-levels impatience with democracy and human rights as central objectives of our foreign policy, that now characterize advanced liberal thinking about America's role in the world.

Zakaria expressed alarm that an excessive American concern for the resistance in Iran will lead us to war. He said he has found proof of such danger in "The Iranian Resistance and Us," a piece by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that was published on the Web site of (we are so bad!) the New Republic this month. Zakaria said the article proves that as president McCain "would have tried to overthrow the government of Iran" because of his desire to "unleash America's full moral power" against the regime. This is outrageous. McCain's piece called on the United States "to support Iran's people in changing the character of their government -- peacefully, politically, on their own terms, in their own ways." Is even this a liberal heresy? McCain did call for targeted sanctions, ferocious sanctions, against Iran's human rights abusers. Is ferocity against even such villains too much to ask, too lacking in empathy and engagement? Who, precisely, is planning Operation Iranian Freedom? It is the paradoxical failure of Zakaria's imagination that he conflates moral power with military power, democratization with shock and awe. He is yet another liberal whose worldview seems forever fixed by George W. Bush.

The joke in Zakaria's column, and it is not funny, is that he seems to believe that he is an exemplary supporter of the Green Movement in Iran. He noted that he served on a committee that gave a prize to Akbar Ganji, an Iranian dissident. Good for him and good for Ganji. But ponder this sentence, a small jewel of apologetic writing: "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have actually lost the presidential election of 2009, but it was a close contest in which he got millions of votes." Of course Ahmadinejad has support: That is why the struggle against him is a struggle. But it is wildly incorrect to claim, as Zakaria did, that only the regime has the power of religion and nationalism on its side. The contest between the dictators and the democrats is in fact a contest between different narratives of the Iranian nation. The religious establishment irreversibly fractured in the aftermath of the regime's savage response to last year's uprising. The invincible clerical-popular monolith that Zakaria portrayed does not exist.

This is not the first time that Zakaria has prettified and extenuated the Iranian regime. In an unforgettable Newsweek column published just a few weeks before Ahmadinejad stole the June 2009 presidential election and provoked the rebellion, Zakaria asserted that "everything you know about Iran is wrong." He knew better. He knew that "the regime wants to be a nuclear power but could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program." This was ludicrous then, and it is more ludicrous now. Zakaria knew also that "Iran isn't a dictatorship." Appearances deceive. Iran is "an oligarchy, with considerable debate and dissent within the elites." How nice for the elites. See you in Davos.

The Khameini-Ahmedinejad "oligarchy" represses and imprisons and rapes and tortures and murders its own citizens. It also promotes theocracy and terrorism in its region and beyond. All this is pretty plain. Why is Zakaria so fearful that American foreign policy will respond to such a government with stringency and loathing? Perhaps he believes that President Obama's policy of respect and accommodation will solve the nuclear problem and bring a measure of decency to the rulers of Iran, but there is no empirical basis for such a belief. It is a much greater fantasy than the "fantasy" that Zakaria deplores, which is no fantasy at all. Real realism consists of the recognition that nuclear peace and social peace in Iran will be reliably achieved only with the advent of democracy, and that since June 12, 2009, the advent of Iranian democracy is not an idle wish. Morally and strategically -- this is one of those perplexities in which they go serendipitously together -- President Obama's refusal to strongly support the Iranian resistance against the Iranian tyranny is not prudent, it is perverse. But when democracy comes to Iran, Fareed Zakaria will plummily assure us that this was his dream all along.

The writer is literary editor of the New Republic.

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