Of Persians and power

By Akil Alleyne on July 2, 2009

In politics as in so much else, talk is cheap; it is deeds that have coinage. This has been one of my key criticisms of US President Barack Obama since the spring of 2008, when the luster of his political ascendancy began to fade in my eyes as his gaseous campaign rhetoric burrowed deeper and deeper under my skin. I looked askance as his handlers and speechwriters set him up in one vainglorious set-piece after another—promising to “heal the planet” and “slow the rise of the oceans” after the last Democratic primary, speaking in front of a row of ridiculous Roman columns at the Democratic National Convention, and so on. Windy rhetoric in politics has never sat well with me, no matter how young, intelligent or charismatic the politician. 

Even less am I impressed by the idea that oratory alone can move mountains; hence the skepticism with which I greeted Obama’s “race speech” in Philadelphia last year and his speech at Cairo University earlier this month. America’s perpetual “conversation on race” has not made any readily obvious progress since March 2008; and as for the claim that Obama’s address to the Muslim world has won over many hearts and minds throughout the umma, well, seeing is believing.

On the whole, eloquent oratory that is untethered to any concrete, effective action is worse than useless in my book. Highfalutin words are best backed up with meaningful deeds; when nothing meaningful can be done, silence—or careful circumspection, at any rate—is golden.

This is why I look with contempt at the flak President Obama is now taking from the Right over his refusal to openly support the Iranian opposition in its current confrontation with the mullahs in Tehran. 

Iran’s clownish and hateful President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was credited with victory in the theocracy’s recent elections by an absurd margin. (According to www.someecards.com: “The unrest in Iran makes me proud to live in a country where corrupt politicians are smart enough to keep rigged elections close.”) Ahmadinejad’s chief rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, promptly demanded a revote while his supporters took to the streets of Tehran in multitudes, objecting to this naked affront to the will of the Iranian people. The country has been roiled with protest ever since, prompting widespread speculation about the potential consequences for the regime’s longevity—not to mention the more, shall we say, controversial elements of Iran’s foreign policy, namely its nascent nuclear program and its support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

President Obama has so far taken the wisest of all available tacks with regard to Iran. He has expressed his skepticism about the election results and his disapproval of the Iranian regime’s thuggish crackdown on dissidents. Yet he has been careful not to go too far in denouncing the regime or in endorsing Mousavi or his supporters—a smart strategy on both counts. The mullahs and their flunkies, after all, are still armed to the teeth, and can brutally crush this largely unarmed uprising at any time, Tiananmen-style. Mousavi, for his part, has not called for an end to the regime’s nuclear ambitions, to its sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah or to its enmity with Israel. It remains unclear whether his supporters seek to overthrow the Shi’ite theocracy altogether or merely to replace one mullah-approved marionette with another. This is not the kind of horse on which Obama would be wise to bet.

The last negotiating partner the US needs is an Iranian regime flush from the victory of flattening an internal insurrection—and incensed at the President’s endorsement of that revolt to boot. In such a scenario, Obama could no longer expect to get the mullahs to beat their uranium centrifuges into ploughshares—and forget about convincing them to rein in Israel’s terrorist tormentors. With the odds already stacked against that success even in the absence of the current strife, President Obama is in no mood for his plans to be disrupted by the events in Tehran.

Nonetheless, a growing chorus of mostly conservative critics has been braying for President Obama to bless the Iranian protestors with just a touch of his oratorical magic, in the name of democracy. It would be foolhardy for him to take their advice, for the United States has no leverage over Iran at present. Armed intervention is out of the question with American troops still bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Economic sanctions would only supplement the largely ineffectual ones already in place, and it is ordinary Iranians who would probably feel the pinch. A US-sponsored coup d’état is no option; the country’s Islamist theocrats are eager enough to blame the unrest on Yankee interference as it is. In any case, the US and Iran have already gone down that road once before, in 1953—with miserable results for everyone involved.

Given the limited options available, why pillory the president for exercising caution? How can the same conservatives who, like me, were happy to deride Barack Obama’s treacly cant not so long ago demand even emptier rhetoric from him now? Why vociferously denounce the mullahs’ skullduggery when the US can do nothing to back it up? Of what use would such inspiring words be without commensurate deeds?

In August 2008, President Bush’s strong objections did not stop Russia from manhandling tiny Georgia. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush’s public musings that the Iraqi people should overthrow Saddam Hussein led to a bloodbath, when the Kurds and Shi’ites proved too weak to finish off Saddam and the US refused to help them get the job done. In 1989, the world watched helplessly as China’s Deng Xiaoping bloodily shattered the Tiananmen Square protestors’ dreams of democracy in a country that called itself a “People’s Republic”. Poland in 1981, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Hungary in 1956, East Germany in 1953: on goes the long, tragic list of popular uprisings that failed because tyrannical regimes had the muscle to suppress them and the will to use it—and because the US had no way of stopping them. 

Displays of “people power” such as the current one in Tehran never fail to thrill and inspire; but their chances of success depend on how well organized and well armed—and how ruthless—both the people and their rulers are. If the latter are mightier, and neither the US nor any other outside benefactor is in a position to step in to level the playing field, the rulers will likely win out, at least in the short term. The Iron Curtain was rent in 1989 primarily because Mikhail Gorbachev refused to use Soviet might to prop up the Eastern European Communist regimes any longer. South African apartheid began to crumble the following year because the regime eventually wilted under the international community’s ostracism. These rulers caved partly because they lacked the bloody-mindedness it took to keep locking up or gunning down their opponents. 

Only time will tell whether the mullahs will similarly lose their nerve. If not, then they will probably win this confrontation. It would be treacherous for President Obama to egg the protesters on if he cannot have their back if and when the crackdown begins in earnest. Fortunately, whatever his shortcomings, Barack Obama is not the treacherous type. 


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