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Obama Follows Precedent, Undermining Iran with Engagement

| June 28, 2009

COMBATTING TYRANNY

A twitter is a terrible thing to waste.

Tweeting his brains out over Iran in the last few days, Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and current candidate for U.S. Senate, had a “feeling” that “the situation in Iran would be a little different if they had a 2nd amendment like ours.” In fairness to Rubio’s feelings, he was only 9 years old in 1980 when Iranians, armed to the teeth with American weaponry shipped to them over the previous 20 years, held 52 Americans hostage – with the support, if not the orders, of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has more blood and brutality on his hands than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and whose cause and followers today has Rubio “Inspired and awed.” Rubio was on firmer ground when he stuck to what he knew best: “Dropped a muffin on floor at airport. Was advised that 2 second rule applied but decided not to risk it and bought another one.”

Rubio’s inanity on Iran sums up the disconnect between American fantasies and Iranian reality. There is no “freedom” uprising in Iran. There’s one faction of the Islamic regime fighting another. Mousavi demonstrators aren’t chucking veils and reciting Thomas Jefferson. They’re brandishing images of Ayatollah Khomeini, waving Islamic-green ribbons and chanting “God is Great” from their windows every night. Should the opposition prevail, it won’t suddenly become an American client or abandon its nuclear hopes. Those projections reflect an America still presumptuous enough to think it can guide other nations’ fates when its own is adrift, as are its recent best-of-shows (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan).

Iran-bashers are ridiculing Barack Obama’s opening to Iran and declaring, as my fellow-Lebanese born and non-fellow neo-con Fouad Ajami did in the Wall Street Journal, that “President Obama’s Persian tutorial has just begun.” In that case, a quick test. Which American president spoke of the need to change course and speak with a long-time enemy? Which president was soon faced with the same enemy violently repressing a popular uprising? And which president decided to speak with the enemy anyway despite the skull-crushing it was meteing out?

Not Obama. Richard Nixon. “We now enter an era of negotiations with the Soviet Union,” Nixon said in Miami, the day before he won the nomination for president in 1968. He was nothing if not anti-communist. But “whoever is president,” he continued, “must proceed on the assumption that negotiations with the leaders of the Soviet world . . . must take place.” Two weeks later Soviet tanks crushed Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring, where a maverick prime minister had attempted to break free of Soviet subjugation. Nixon was a crook, not a fool. The Soviet Union wasn’t going away. At least not yet. Engaging it was likelier to undermine its belligerence than confronting it with more belligerence. It took Ronald Reagan a few years to get around to the same idea. But he did, to the horror of some of his more bellicose posse (and Reagan had a more genuine fear of nuclear Armageddon than Nixon ever did, which helped).

Time was on America’s side then, and the Soviets crumbled from within, as rotten regimes usually do. Time is on the West’s side now with Iran, a more meager, more rotten, less brutal regime – but richer civilization – than the Soviet Union ever was. It may acquire nuclear weapons. Israel’s nuke-baiting aside, it won’t be able to do anything with them outside of military parades.

Obama knows his history. But that’s not the reason he’s responding just as George W. Bush did before him (Bush did nothing during the 2003 Iranian student uprising). For all the bluster about supporting a more democratic Iran, the idea makes American presidents nervous. It makes America’s allies in the Middle East nervous. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and a few other little Sunni-led tyrannies from the Persian Gulf to North Africa pretend to hate the Iranian regime’s Shiite revolutionaries. They hate democratic movements and what they inspire even more. They’d rather live with a nuclear Iran than a democratic Iran, which would threaten every one of those tyrannies the United States unquestioningly props up.

That’s the ultimate irony. They’re getting their heads bashed in Iran, but at least they’re exposing the system’s contradictions. In most of the American-allied Arab world, dissenting citizens can’t even get to the street before being hauled off to the torture chambers. Iran isn’t the problem. The ayatollahs’ regime will crumble eventually, especially as its authoritarianism is not being propped up by the United States. The same can’t be said of other countries in the region, where America’s indulgence is tyranny’s best friend.

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