A remarkable thing happened yesterday at President Obama’s afternoon press conference – he took a question from an Iranian, relayed via Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post. Pitney solicited questions via the Iranian Farsi-language social networking site Balatarin and invited the community to vote on which one to ask Obama, and the question that received the most support was the one he asked. It is important to note that the White House approached Pitney to ask the question, and did not know the question in advance. This is a tremendous milestone in citizen journalism – and predictably infuriated the mainstream Beltway media gatekeepers who see the idea that a President might engage directly with people as a threat to their privelege. Which it is -and there’s a movement underway now to push the President to accept one citizen-generated question at every press conference from now on.

That’s enough meta – let’s get to the substance of the question itself. The question that Pitney asked was this: “Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad, and if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there isn’t that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working for?” I have transcribed the President’s answer below:

Well look, we didn’t have international observers on the ground. We can’t say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country. What we know is that a sizeable percentage of the Iranian people themselves, spanning Iranian society, consider this election illegitimate. It’s not an isolated instance, a little grumbling here or there. There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election. And so ultimately, 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, and thats why I’ve been very clear ultimately this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is gonna be and the structure of their government.

What we can do, is to say unequivocally that there are sets of international norms and principles about violence, about dealing with the peaceful dissent, that spans cultures, spans borders. And what we’ve been seeing over the internet, and what we’ve been seeing in news reports, violates those norms, and violates those principles. I think it is not too late for the Iranian government to recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people. We hope they take it.

The President here separates two issues that are indeed wholly separate (though Republicans have been doing their best to conflate them, for partisan political gain): 1. the legitimacy of the Iranian election, and 2. the violent suppression of the reform movement, including murder. Accepting the outcome of the election in Iran is not a betrayal of the Green Revolution on the streets – and in fact if we are to retain any leverage over Iran, to further the cause of human rights, then we as a nation must remain engaged with Iran to exert pressure, not abandon the Iranians to the tender mercies of their regime and turn our back on them.

Even conservatives I respect such as Reihan Salaam are advocating a isolation policy towards Iran – sanctions, preconditions for diplomactic recognition, etc. The effect of such a policy would be to give the regime more leeway to impose totalitarian control over the populace, not less. Is there even one example where diplomatic and economic isolation has resulted in improved human rights, let alone regime change?

An analogy and comparison between North Korea and China is instructive, and illustrates the fundamental diffference between autocracy and totalitarianism. We have zero leverage over North Korea, where decades of economic sanctions have only led to literal starvation of the masses while the elite remain untouched. There is no way for the plight of the NK people to reach the outside world, for NK citizens to get onto the internet or even ask a question of an American President. It is literally a black hole. In stark contrast, after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, there were many voices calling on President Bush Sr. at the time to impose sanctions and isolate China, but instead our relationship with China has grown since then. The result is a China where the heavy hand of the state may still censor the Internet and forbid public critique of the regime, but where also capitalism has been embraced and the average family can live their life with relatively high standards of living and social ambitions. The people of China themselves reacted angrily to Western critique of China during the Olympic Games in Beijing – an authentic nationalism that found its voice on the Internet, Youtube, and social networking sites just as the Green Revolution has. There is a trend towards increasing freedom, correlated intimately to increasing economic success, in China that would not exist had we attempted to isolate that nation after the tragedy of 1989.

Ultimately, if the Green Revolution fails, we need to still maintain a relationship with Iran to ensure that it becomes more like China and less like North Korea. That’s the best we can do short of outright invasion and forcing regime change, to help maintain breathing room for reformists to change their society and government from within. As the old adage goes, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. In Iran, even with a successful Green Revolution, an Iran with a President Moussavi is still going to be one that neoconservatives will lambast and label as evil incarnate. But if the Green Revolution fails, and Ahmadinejad remains in control, then severing ties with Iran would indeed be a betrayal of all that the people have Iran have fought and even died for these past few weeks.

Related: Here’s video of President Obama’s response to the Iranian question. Also, an excellent diary at DailyKos about the neocons’ love-hate relationship with Ahmedinejad, and their total lack of credibility with respect to the cause of freedom for the people. With friends like these, the Green Revolution hardly needs enemies. Also, a surprisingly apolitical and excellent diary at RedState about the internal fissures within the Iranian regime, divisions that will bear fruit in time if the Iranian regime is not spurred towards the path of totalitarianism. Finally, Chris Bowers at OpenLeft reminds us how foreign involvement in a nation’s election process can often strengthen the incumbent regime – and invokes the letter-writing campaign by the UK Guardian newspaper in Clark County, OH during the 2004 election with actual data to prove his point.

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