John McCain, who at one time joked about bombing Iran in song, now has joined the Republican chatterwagon calling for President Obama to Do Something to help the Green Revolution in Iran along. It seems that the Republicans, who were critical of Obama’s soaring rhetoric during the campaign, now want Obama to say the magic words, “Ahmadinejad stole the election”. But doing so would surely do severe damage to the reformists’ cause. As Obama himself put it clearly,
I think’s important to recognize is that the easiest way for reactionary forces inside Iran to crush reformers is to say it’s the US that is encouraging those reformers. So what I’ve said is, `Look, it’s up to the Iranian people to make a decision. We are not meddling.’ And, you know, ultimately the question that the leadership in Iran has to answer is their own credibility in the eyes of the Iranian people.
What Obama has done instead has been to quietly facilitate and encourage what he referred to as the “healthy debate” within Iran about reform. For example, the State Department asked Twitter to delay their network upgrades, so as not to interfere with the social-media-driven organizing of the reform movement and rallies. This is in stark contrast to the short-sighted closure of Radio Amadi in 2002 by the Bush Administration, which effectively neutered the widespread popular uprisings in the streets of Tehran after the sentencing of popular reformist academic Hashem Aghajari. Of course, the Bush Administration routinely engaged in empty rhetoric against the Iranian regime (“axis of evil”), which only made the regime less willing to tolerate reform. It’s no accident that Tehran ramped up its nuclear program shortly afterwards.
Let’s not forget that Obama has spoken directly to the Iranian people before the election – Obama’s Nowruz greeting to the Iranian people was an end-run around the regime and a tangible encouragement for the Iranians to seek change, as this anecdote from an Iranian-American girl visiting family in Tehran illustrates:
Arguably, it was Barack Obama who brought down the virtual wall between Iran and the West with his conciliatory and hopeful Nowruz (Iran’s New Year) message on YouTube. I looked on as my friends and family watched his message with adoration in Tehran. “Why can’t he be our president”, one aunt gushed. It hit a chord, mainly because it made Ahmadinejad look foolish.
The point here is that saber-rattling and stern lectures about freedom and democracy are one approach, which give the appearance of “support” for reformists’ cause but in fact make things much worse. What does work is direct engagement of the people, giving them resources they can use as they take their own destiny in hand. This is a simple lesson that the ODS-afflicted Republiican warriors would do well to understand, if they truly value the welfare of the people of Iran, not to mention of the United States, over their short-term political fortunes.
This is not about us. It’s about them.