Attacks are mounting against President Obama for failing to offer sufficient support to backers of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran, with claims that Obama is "siding with the regime" against the Iranian people. This approach to the crisis is derided as "realist" -- typically with quotation marks -- as well as cold-blooded and insufficiently committed to American values. But the president has struck the right tone in his public statements, calling on Iran's government to stop "all violent and unjust actions" and making clear that Washington and the world are watching. And he is right to avoid becoming more deeply involved in Iran's post-election political crisis, both practically and morally.
Many politicians and commentators seem to suffer from the illusion that the United States can have a decisive influence on Iran's political evolution. They appear to believe this despite the fact that engineering Iraqi democracy -- which a number of them also urged -- has been far more difficult and costly than was advertised at the outset. Moreover, Iran's political system is no less complex and is probably less well understood in America than Iraq's was before March 2003. How many American experts, officials or members of Congress have been to Iran in the past 30 years? It is Iran's 66 million citizens, not tough rhetoric or token assistance, who will determine how events in the country unfold.
Recognizing this, it is not only unproductive but dangerous for the United States to play too visible a role in Iran's domestic disturbances.
The question goes far beyond how actively supporting what amounts to a potential revolution in Iran could impact efforts at engagement or a "grand bargain." We must also ask ourselves how the Iranian people would react to U.S. involvement in a country where strong nationalist sentiment buttresses the political position of the country's conservatives and Washington is already regularly blamed for supporting a 1953 coup. Can the United States really help?
As British scholar Anatol Lieven has written for the Nixon Center's journal, the National Interest, one of the main reasons that Russia's democratic reform has failed while similar efforts succeeded in Central Europe is that democracy movements in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere were fueled by powerful anti-Russian nationalism -- a mobilization strategy that Russian democrats could not effectively employ against their own government.
Iran's reformers face a similar dilemma. The theocratic regime is losing legitimacy in part because of its economic failure. But as religious and economic legitimacy weaken, what else is left? Iranian nationalism could be decisive, and it is reckless to toy with something that we do not adequately understand.
Another reason for the Obama administration to let Iranians work out their politics on their own is that it is far from clear that there is a substantial difference for U.S. interests between the two competitors. While Mr. Mousavi has distanced himself from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's offensive rhetoric about the Holocaust, there is little to suggest that his policies would vary markedly from Ahmadinejad's on Iran's nuclear program or its ties to Hamas and Hezbollah. Ironically, as my Nixon Center colleague Geoffrey Kemp has suggested, a Mousavi victory could well lead to weakening international pressure on Iran on these issues as a result of European reluctance to undermine someone who, many would hope, could emerge as a moderate and a reformer. (This is not a call to "side" with Ahmadinejad.)
The final argument against a stronger public American position on Iran's protests as they now stand is a powerful moral one. The United States encouraged Hungarians in an uprising against their communist leaders in 1956, only to watch as the brave individuals who chose to stand against their regime were killed mercilessly by their own government because they lacked sufficient internal or external support to succeed. If the American people are not prepared to offer real help to the protesters in Tehran's streets -- up to and including military force to ensure that they win -- it is profoundly immoral to urge Iranians to action from the sidelines. Some of the American commentators and politicians now critical of the president gave the same rhetorical "support" to Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili last year, emboldening Saakashvili and contributing to a war that was disastrous for Georgians.
No one advocating support for Mousavi seems prepared to accept responsibility for the outcome. But without doing so, fighting Ahmadinejad to the last Mousavi voter would be far more cold-blooded than anything the Obama administration has done -- especially knowing what we know about the Iranian regime.
Mousavi's backers will prevail in Iran if they have sufficient public and political support, including inside the country's military and security services. If they don't, we can hope that they survive and draw useful lessons to try again another day. U.S. efforts to force the issue are more likely to set back Iran's political evolution than to advance it, and President Obama has done the right thing with his measured comments. If the crisis escalates, it may be necessary to do more, something the administration itself has said. Otherwise, those who truly want to see political reform in Iran would do well to stay out of the way.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center and served in the State Department during the second Bush administration.