What Iran has been doing while you were watching the protests (& other aspects of the uprising)

June 21, 2009

* “While the remarkable turmoil in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential election has captured the world’s attention, other news relating to Iran has slipped by relatively unnoticed. Last week, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency told Congress that Iran and North Korea were cooperating on ballistic missiles. Diplomats in Vienna said that Iran had denied an IAEA request to install additional monitoring cameras at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and IAEA director-general Mohammad ElBaradei claimed categorically that Iran desires nuclear weapons, not civil nuclear energy.”

* Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic republic has organized 31 elections at different levels. All have been carefully scripted, with candidates pre-approved by the regime and no independent mechanism for oversight.

* “The President yesterday denounced the ‘extent of the fraud’ and the ‘shocking’ and ‘brutal’ response of the Iranian regime to public demonstrations in Tehran. That president was not Barack Obama.”

 

CONTENTS

1. The fight over Iran’s future is only just beginning
2. Cartoon: Obama’s 3 am phone call
3. Spoken like a good lawyer
4. The U.S. should vigorously defend a free Iran
5. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: The election is a “miracle” and a “triumph for Islam”
6. President Ahmadinelandslide
7. Summary of editorials on Iran from today’s Israeli press
8. “Obama’s Iran abdication” (Editorial, Wall Street Journal)
9. What Iran has been doing while you were watching the protests (By Michael Singh)
10. “Iran’s dictator gives up pretence of democracy” (By Amir Taheri)
11. “Neutrality isn’t an option” (By Mark Steyn)


THE FIGHT OVER IRAN’S FUTURE IS ONLY JUST BEGINNING

Tomorrow I will post a dispatch (titled: Twitter 1, BBC 0) exploring the current situation in Iran in more depth, with various videos and notes of my own. Meanwhile below, I attach four articles by others, exploring the aftermath of the rigged Iranian election, the uprising which has followed, and the response or lack of response by Western leaders.

I have prepared summaries of the articles first for those who don’t have time to read them in full, though I recommend reading the full pieces if you can.

-- Tom Gross

 

CARTOON: OBAMA’S 3 AM PHONE CALL

As mentioned in a previous dispatch, the Israeli cartoonist, Dry Bones, who is no longer with The Jerusalem Post, has given me permission to reproduce his cartoons on my website. His latest cartoon can be seen here:

 

SUMMARIES

SPOKEN LIKE A GOOD LAWYER

In an editorial last Thursday, The Wall Street Journal writes:

The President yesterday denounced the “extent of the fraud” and the “shocking” and “brutal” response of the Iranian regime to public demonstrations in Tehran these past four days.

“These elections are an atrocity,” he said. “If [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad had made such progress since the last elections, if he won two-thirds of the vote, why such violence?” The statement named the regime as the cause of the outrage in Iran and, without meddling or picking favorites, stood up for Iranian democracy.

The President who spoke those words was France’s Nicolas Sarkozy.

The French are hardly known for their idealistic foreign policy and moral fortitude. Then again many global roles are reversing in the era of Obama. The American President didn’t have anything to say the first two days after polls closed in Iran on Friday.

… When Obama finally did find his voice, he sounded like a good lawyer. Mr. Obama didn’t call the vote fraudulent, though he did allow that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election.” This is a generous interpretation of the Supreme Leader’s effort to defuse public rage by mooting a possible recount of select precincts. “How that plays out,” Mr. Obama said, “is ultimately for the Iranian people to decide.” Sort of like the 2000 Florida recount, no doubt.

… The Iranian rebellion, though too soon to call a revolution, is turning out to be that 3 a.m. phone call for Mr. Obama. As a French President shows up the American on moral clarity, Hillary Clinton’s point about his inexperience and instincts in a crisis is turning out to be prescient.

 

THE U.S. SHOULD VIGOROUSLY DEFEND A FREE IRAN

In the second article below, Michael Singh, the former senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. government’s National Security Council, writes on the website of Foreign Policy magazine:

While the remarkable turmoil in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential election has captured the world’s attention, other news relating to Iran has slipped by relatively unnoticed. Last week, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency told Congress that Iran and North Korea were cooperating on ballistic missiles*. Diplomats in Vienna told the press that Iran had denied an IAEA request to install additional monitoring cameras at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and IAEA director-general Mohammad ElBaradei asserted that Iran desires nuclear weapons.

… The juxtaposition of these activities with the ferment in the streets of Tehran reveals two altogether different Irans struggling with one another – one marked by political dynamism and a hunger for justice, and another that is autocratic, bent on projecting power, and in which elected officials have little influence.

… This begs the question: Upon which Iran should U.S. policy be focused? Can the United States successfully support freedom in Iran without endangering its “tough diplomacy” aimed at the Iranian nuclear threat?

In formulating an answer, it is important to note that prospects for U.S.-Iran engagement, never too great, have been diminished by the election and its aftermath. The Iranian regime’s willingness to flout international opinion and the yearnings of its own people reveals either overconfidence or, conversely, serious insecurity. A cautious regime might see an opportunity in President Obama’s offer of dialogue, but a regime that is either supremely confident or shakily insecure is unlikely to grasp Obama’s outstretched hand. A confident regime is likely to dismiss the consequences of defiance, and an insecure one will see any opening to the West as a threat rather than a prize.

… Nevertheless, whatever chances exist for successful engagement with the Iranian regime will not be dimmed by a vigorous defense of the rights of the Iranian people; rather, those prospects would paradoxically be enhanced.

… Some have argued that Iranians will naturally resent any perceived involvement by foreign powers in their affairs, citing as an example the American-backed overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953. This reading of history strains credulity. Iranians’ wariness of outside powers arises in large part from Western indifference to the oppression of Iranians and failure to support their struggle for justice, whether in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11, or during the Mossadeq era. Iranians do not want outsiders, including the United States, to pick winners in their elections. But silence in the face of a violent crackdown in Iran would compound these historical errors, not reverse them…

* [TG adds: Japanese intelligence sources say North Korean nuclear personnel are packing up and leaving Iran, though perhaps only temporarily. They don’t want to be around to take the flak if the protestors win, and they don’t want information about their activities in Iran to be revealed.]

 

AYATOLLAH KHAMENEI: THE ELECTION IS A “MIRACLE” AND A “TRIUMPH FOR ISLAM”

In the third article below, Amir Taheri, probably the leading Iranian journalist and author working in the West (and a longtime subscriber to this email list), writes in today’s Sunday Times of London:

Just before noon on Friday, June 19, the Islamic republic died in Iran. Its death was announced by its “supreme guide”, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had come to praise the system but buried it instead. Khamenei was addressing supporters on the campus of Tehran University, transformed into a mosque for the occasion. Many had expected him to speak as a guide, an arbiter of disputes – a voice for national reconciliation. Instead, he spoke as a rabble rouser and a tinpot despot.

… Elections in the Islamic republic resembled primaries in American political parties in which all candidates are from the same political family but the contest is free and fair. The June 12 election was exceptional because three of the four candidates challenged the results.

Once the initial shock had passed, everyone looked to the supreme leader to find a way out of the impasse. Instead, Khamenei came out with a long lyrical monologue, hailing the election as a “miracle” and a “triumph for Islam”. Never before had Khamenei commented on the results of elections beyond accepting them as an expression of the popular will. The Khomeinist system was supposed to be 80% theocracy and 20% democracy, regardless of how bizarre the combination looked.

On Friday, the 20% democratic part disappeared, as Iran was transformed from an Islamic republic into an Islamic emirate headed by the Emir al-Momeneen (Commander of the Faithful) Ali Khamenei…

… Today there are two Irans. One is prepared to support Khamenei’s bid to transform the republic into an emirate in the service of the Islamic cause. Then there is a second Iran – one that wishes to cease to be a cause and yearns to be an ordinary nation. This Iran has not yet found its ultimate leaders…

 

PRESIDENT AHMADINELANDSLIDE

In the fourth article below, American-based Canadian commentator Mark Steyn (who is also a subscriber to this email list), writes:

The polite explanation for Barack Obama’s diffidence on Iran is that he doesn’t want to give the mullahs the excuse to say the Great Satan is meddling in Tehran’s affairs. So the president’s official position is that he’s modestly encouraged by the regime’s supposed interest in investigating some of the allegations of fraud. “You’ve seen in Iran,” explained President Obama, “some initial reaction from the Supreme Leader that indicates he understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election …”

“Supreme Leader”? I thought that was official house style for Barack Obama at Newsweek and MSNBC. But no. It’s also the title held by Ayatollah Khamenei for the last couple of decades. If it sounds odd from the lips of an American president, that’s because none has ever been as deferential in observing the Islamic republic’s dictatorial protocol. Like President Obama’s deep, ostentatious bow to the king of Saudi Arabia, it signals a fresh start in our relations with the Muslim world, “mutually respectful” and unilaterally fawning.

And how did it go down? At Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei attacked “dirty Zionists” and “bad British radio”. “The most evil of them all is the British government,” added the supreme leader, warming to his theme. The crowd, including President Ahmadinelandslide and his cabinet, chanted, “Death to the U.K.”

Her Majesty’s Government brought this on themselves by allowing their shoot-from-the-lip prime minister to issue saber-rattling threats like: “The regime must address the serious questions which have been asked about the conduct of the Iranian elections.”

Fortunately, President Obama was far more judicious. And in return, instead of denouncing him as “evil” and deploring the quality of his radio programming, Ayatollah Khamenei said Obama’s “agents” had been behind the protests: “They started to cause riots in the street, they caused destruction, they burnt houses.” …

 

SUMMARY OF EDITORIALS ON IRAN FROM TODAY’S ISRAELI PRESS

For those of you interested, here is a summary of editorials on the Iranian situation from newspapers in Israel:

Yediot Ahronot says that opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi “is merely the platform. He is not the story. The real story is the brave soccer players wearing green armbands. The real story is the beaten and shot-at masses in the streets. The real story is the women who are refusing to be quiet beneath head-coverings and are demanding freedom now.”

Ma’ariv believes that “It is difficult to tell how the ongoing riots in Tehran will end; however, one thing may be determined with certainty – The first seeds of a popular revolution have been sown, the results of which could lead to the crumbling of the existing Islamic regime… Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now on the horns of a serious dilemma – to crack down hard and risk inflaming the protests further or to respond with restraint and risk appearing weak, which could also increase the numbers of protestors.

Yisrael Hayom argues that “Unless America responds with credible strength to what is happening in North Korea and in Iran, Obama’s vision will remain a pipedream,” and adds that “While George Bush gave a bad name to the forceful intervention of the U.S. against the axis of evil, Obama’s withdrawal from what Samuel Huntington referred to as ‘the clash of civilizations’ in favor of conciliating the dictators in Tehran and Pyongyang is liable to be disastrous for all humanity… President Obama should learn from the example of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as well as from the examples of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, when freedom fighters were abandoned to their fate.”


FULL ARTICLES

SORT OF LIKE THE 2000 FLORIDA RECOUNT, NO DOUBT

Obama’s Iran Abdication
Wall Street Journal (editorial)
June 18, 2009

The President yesterday denounced the “extent of the fraud” and the “shocking” and “brutal” response of the Iranian regime to public demonstrations in Tehran these past four days.

“These elections are an atrocity,” he said. “If [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad had made such progress since the last elections, if he won two-thirds of the vote, why such violence?” The statement named the regime as the cause of the outrage in Iran and, without meddling or picking favorites, stood up for Iranian democracy.

The President who spoke those words was France’s Nicolas Sarkozy.

The French are hardly known for their idealistic foreign policy and moral fortitude. Then again many global roles are reversing in the era of Obama. The American President didn’t have anything to say the first two days after polls closed in Iran on Friday and an improbable landslide victory for Mr. Ahmadinejad sparked the protests. “I have deep concerns about the election,” he said yesterday at the White House, when he finally did find his voice. “When I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people.”

Spoken like a good lawyer. Mr. Obama didn’t call the vote fraudulent, though he did allow that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election.” This is a generous interpretation of the Supreme Leader’s effort to defuse public rage by mooting a possible recount of select precincts. “How that plays out,” Mr. Obama said, “is ultimately for the Iranian people to decide.” Sort of like the 2000 Florida recount, no doubt.

From the start of this Iranian election, Administration officials said the U.S. should avoid becoming an issue in the campaign that the regime might exploit. Before votes were cast, this hands-off strategy made sense in that the election didn’t present a real choice for Iranians. Whether President Ahmadinejad or his chief challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, won wouldn’t change the mullahs’ ultimate political control. Mr. Mousavi had been Ayatollah Khomeini’s Prime Minister, hardly the resume of a revolutionary.

But Friday’s vote and aftermath have changed those facts on the ground. Like other authoritarians – Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 or Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 – Tehran misjudged its own people. Having put a democratic veneer around their theocracy, they attempted to steal an election in such a blatant way that it has become a new and profound challenge to their legitimacy. Especially in the cities, Iranians are fed up with the corruption and incompetence rampant in the Islamic Republic. This dissatisfaction was galvanized by the regime’s contempt for their votes and found an accidental leader in Mr. Mousavi. The movement has now taken on a life of its own, with consequences no one can predict.

The Obama Administration came into office with a realpolitik script to goad the mullahs into a “grand bargain” on its nuclear program. But Team Obama isn’t proving to be good at the improv. His foreign policy gurus drew up an agenda defined mainly in opposition to the perceived Bush legacy: The U.S. will sit down with the likes of Iran, North Korea or Russia and hash out deals. In a Journal story on Monday, a senior U.S. official bordered on enthusiastic about confirming an Ahmadinejad victory as soon as possible. “Had there been a transition to a new government, a new president wouldn’t have emerged until August. In some respects, this might allow Iran to engage the international community quicker.” The popular uprising in Iran is so inconvenient to this agenda.

President Obama elaborates on this point with his now-frequent moral equivalance. Yesterday he invoked the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup against Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadeq to explain his reticence. “Now, it’s not productive, given the history of the U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling – the U.S. President meddling in Iranian elections,” Mr. Obama said.

As far as we can tell, the CIA or other government agencies aren’t directing the protests or bankrolling Mr. Mousavi. Beyond token Congressional support for civil society groups and the brave reporting of the Persian-language and U.S.-funded Radio Farda, America’s role here is limited. Less than a fortnight ago, in Cairo, Mr. Obama touted his commitment to “governments that reflect the will of the people.” Now the President who likes to say that “words matter” refuses to utter a word of support to Iran’s people. By that measure, the U.S. should never have supported Soviet dissidents because it would have interfered with nuclear arms control.

The Iranian rebellion, though too soon to call a revolution, is turning out to be that 3 a.m. phone call for Mr. Obama. As a French President shows up the American on moral clarity, Hillary Clinton’s point about his inexperience and instincts in a crisis is turning out to be prescient.

 

WHAT IRAN HAS BEEN DOING WHILE YOU WERE WATCHING THE PROTESTS

What Iran has been doing while you were watching the protests
By Michael Singh
Foreign Policy magazine
June 18, 2009

While the remarkable turmoil in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential election has captured the world’s attention, other news relating to Iran has slipped by relatively unnoticed. Last week, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency told Congress that Iran and North Korea were cooperating on ballistic missiles. Diplomats in Vienna told the press that Iran had denied an IAEA request to install additional monitoring cameras at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and IAEA director-general Mohammad ElBaradei asserted that Iran desires nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, two Hizbullah operatives were reportedly arrested in Azerbaijan, bearing Iranian passports.

The juxtaposition of these activities with the ferment in the streets of Tehran reveals two altogether different Irans struggling with one another – one marked by political dynamism and a hunger for justice, and another that is autocratic, bent on projecting power, and in which elected officials have little influence. To Iranians, this sort of conflict follows a familiar pattern in Iran’s history. To Westerners, it has been eye-opening. What is surprising to outside observers is not that Iran’s elections were rigged, but that their manipulation has elicited such a powerful response from the Iranian people.

While policymakers in the United States and elsewhere pin their hopes on the first, vibrant Iran, they must deal with the stark reality of the second, harsher one. This may explain the unusually cautious statements emanating from the White House, including President Obama’s own statement to the effect that Ahmadinejad and his challengers are not much different as far as the United States is concerned. This begs the question: Upon which Iran should U.S. policy be focused? Can the United States successfully support freedom in Iran without endangering its “tough diplomacy” aimed at the Iranian nuclear threat?

In formulating an answer, it is important to note that prospects for U.S.-Iran engagement, never too great, have been diminished by the election and its aftermath. The Iranian regime’s willingness to flout international opinion and the yearnings of its own people reveals either overconfidence or, conversely, serious insecurity. A cautious regime might see an opportunity in President Obama’s offer of dialogue, but a regime that is either supremely confident or shakily insecure is unlikely to grasp Obama’s outstretched hand. A confident regime is likely to dismiss the consequences of defiance, and an insecure one will see any opening to the West as a threat rather than a prize.

The results themselves suggest that engagement with the United States is not the regime’s top priority. Whereas his challengers argued during their campaign for improving U.S.-Iran relations, Ahmadinejad heaped scorn on those who would pursue “detente” with the West. He was supported by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who pronounced himself “ideologically disinclined” toward U.S.-Iran reconciliation and urged Iranian voters to reject candidates who would reach out to Washington.

Nevertheless, whatever chances exist for successful engagement with the Iranian regime will not be dimmed by a vigorous defense of the rights of the Iranian people; rather, those prospects would paradoxically be enhanced.

This crisis provides an opportunity to demonstrate to the regime that it will face multilateral penalties for flouting international norms, a lesson clearly transferrable to the nuclear question. While our allies may vary in their views on the risks posed by Iran’s nuclear program and the best way to deal with it, the regime’s actions against its own people are drawing broad condemnation from across the world. If even this global outcry is not translated into concrete action, Iran’s leaders will draw the lesson that the international community’s resolve has dissipated and will act accordingly.

Furthermore, vigorously defending Iranians’ rights, both now and in the context of any future dialogue with Iran, could enhance U.S. credibility inside Iran and boost support among Iranians for a compromise with the West.

Some have argued that Iranians will naturally resent any perceived involvement by foreign powers in their affairs, citing as an example the American-backed overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953. This reading of history strains credulity. Iranians’ wariness of outside powers arises in large part from Western indifference to the oppression of Iranians and failure to support their struggle for justice, whether in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11, or during the Mossadeq era. Iranians do not want outsiders, including the United States, to pick winners in their elections. But silence in the face of a violent crackdown in Iran would compound these historical errors, not reverse them.

Iran is a multifaceted nation which demands a multifaceted U.S. policy. A successful approach to Iran will require the United States to simultaneously confront head-on the challenges posed by both Irans evident today – to support the first Iran, which is demanding justice, and to deter the second, determined to challenge international security. If we fail to do so, we will unwittingly be writing yet another tragic chapter in the troubled history of U.S.-Iran relations.

 

ON FRIDAY, JUNE 19, THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC DIED IN IRAN

Iran’s dictator gives up pretence of democracy
By Amir Taheri
The Sunday Times (London)
June 21, 2009

Just before noon on Friday, June 19, the Islamic republic died in Iran. Its death was announced by its “supreme guide”, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had come to praise the system but buried it instead. Khamenei was addressing supporters on the campus of Tehran University, transformed into a mosque for the occasion. Many had expected him to speak as a guide, an arbiter of disputes – a voice for national reconciliation. Instead, he spoke as a rabble rouser and a tinpot despot.

At issue was the June 12 presidential election that millions of Iranians, perhaps a majority, believe was rigged to ensure the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a two-thirds majority. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic republic has organised 31 elections at different levels. All have been carefully scripted, with candidates pre-approved by the regime and no independent mechanism for oversight.

Nevertheless, the results were never contested because most Iranians believed the regime would not cheat within the limits set by itself. Elections in the Islamic republic resembled primaries in American political parties in which all candidates are from the same political family but the contest is free and fair. The June 12 election was exceptional because three of the four candidates challenged the results.

Once the initial shock had passed, everyone looked to the supreme leader to find a way out of the impasse. Instead, Khamenei came out with a long lyrical monologue, hailing the election as a “miracle” and a “triumph for Islam”. Never before had Khamenei commented on the results of elections beyond accepting them as an expression of the popular will. The Khomeinist system was supposed to be 80% theocracy and 20% democracy, regardless of how bizarre the combination looked.

On Friday, the 20% democratic part disappeared, as Iran was transformed from an Islamic republic into an Islamic emirate headed by the Emir al-Momeneen (Commander of the Faithful) Ali Khamenei. As Iranians marched in the street in support of more freedom and democracy, Khamenei served notice that he was determined to lead the country in the opposite direction.

A sign that the self-appointed emir wanted to jettison the republican part of the system was there for all to see. The diminutive Ahmadinejad was relegated to the third rung of the faithful praying behind Khamenei. Sandwiched between two mullahs with giant turbans, he was almost hidden from public view. For almost a week the usually voluble Ahmadinejad has been kept off the airwaves. Suddenly the office of the president has become irrelevant. Ahmadinejad is there not because the people wanted him but because the emir found “his views closer to mine than the views of others”.

Khamenei’s decision to kill the Islamic republic may lead Iran into uncharted waters. The move has split the establishment as never before. All prominent figures of the “loyal opposition”, including former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, boycotted the Friday gathering. Nearly half the members of the Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, were absent – along with most members of the Assembly of Experts, a body of 92 mullahs supposed to supervise the work of the supreme leader. Many senior figures of the military/security establishment were significantly absent, too.

If Khamenei had hoped to intimidate the protesters into accepting the results, he was quickly disappointed. No sooner had the “emirate” been born than millions of people throughout Iran were on the rooftops shouting, “I will die, but won’t accept humiliation!” A week of nationwide protests has claimed at least seven lives. Khamenei’s intervention has been followed by a wave of arrests. The supreme leader has tried to divide the opposition by offering public assurances to Rafsanjani and Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the former parliamentary Speaker, that they would not be prosecuted on corruption charges as threatened by Ahmadinejad. Nevertheless, both men still refuse to endorse Ahmadinejad’s re-election.

As the principal face of the opposition, Mir Hossein Mousavi has come under pressure to wind up the movement. Yesterday Abbas Mohtaj, the head of Iran’s security council, issued a veiled death threat. Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife and principal campaign manager, has retaliated by publishing a poem through Twitter and SMS sent to millions of Iranians: “Let the wolves know that in our tribe / If the father dies, his gun will remain / Even if all the men of the tribe are killed / A baby son will remain in the wooden cradle”.

For the past three days the regime has held back its security forces while tightening the lasso around the opposition leadership, especially Mousavi. He is under virtual house arrest.

Today there are two Irans. One is prepared to support Khamenei’s bid to transform the republic into an emirate in the service of the Islamic cause. Then there is a second Iran – one that wishes to cease to be a cause and yearns to be an ordinary nation. This Iran has not yet found its ultimate leaders. For now, it is prepared to bet on Mousavi. The fight over Iran’s future is only beginning.

 

THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, PEACE BE UPON HIM

Neutrality isn’t an option
By Mark Steyn
National Review
June 20, 2009

The polite explanation for Barack Obama’s diffidence on Iran is that he doesn’t want to give the mullahs the excuse to say the Great Satan is meddling in Tehran’s affairs. So the president’s official position is that he’s modestly encouraged by the regime’s supposed interest in investigating some of the allegations of fraud. Also, he’s heartened to hear that OJ is looking for the real killers. “You’ve seen in Iran,” explained President Obama, “some initial reaction from the Supreme Leader that indicates he understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election . . .”

“Supreme Leader”? I thought that was official house style for Barack Obama at Newsweek and MSNBC. But no. It’s also the title held by Ayatollah Khamenei for the last couple of decades. If it sounds odd from the lips of an American president, that’s because none has ever been as deferential in observing the Islamic republic’s dictatorial protocol. Like President Obama’s deep, ostentatious bow to the king of Saudi Arabia, it signals a fresh start in our relations with the Muslim world, “mutually respectful” and unilaterally fawning.

And how did it go down? At Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei attacked “dirty Zionists” and “bad British radio” (presumably a reference to the BBC’s Farsi news service rather than the non-stop Herman’s Hermits marathon on Supergold Oldies FM). “The most evil of them all is the British government,” added the supreme leader, warming to his theme. The crowd, including President Ahmadinelandslide and his cabinet, chanted, “Death to the U.K.”

Her Majesty’s Government brought this on themselves by allowing their shoot-from-the-lip prime minister to issue saber-rattling threats like: “The regime must address the serious questions which have been asked about the conduct of the Iranian elections.”

Fortunately, President Obama was far more judicious. And in return, instead of denouncing him as “evil” and deploring the quality of his radio programming, Ayatollah Khamenei said Obama’s “agents” had been behind the protests: “They started to cause riots in the street, they caused destruction, they burnt houses.” But that wasn’t all the Great Satin did. “What is the worst thing to me in all this,” sighed the supreme leader, “are comments made in the name of human rights and freedom and liberty by American officials . . . What? Are you serious? Do you know what human rights are?”

And then he got into specifics: “During the time of the Democrats, the time of Clinton, 80 people were burned alive in Waco. Now you are talking about human rights?”

It’s unclear whether the “Death to the U.K.” chanters switched at this point to “Democrats lied, people fried.” But you get the gist. The President of the United States can make nice to His Hunkalicious Munificence the Supremely Supreme Leader of Leaders (Peace Be Upon Him) all he wants, but it isn’t going to be reciprocated.

There’s a very basic lesson here: For great powers, studied neutrality isn’t an option. Even if you’re genuinely neutral. In the early nineties, the attitude of much of the west to the disintegrating Yugoslavia was summed up in the brute dismissal of James Baker that America didn’t have a dog in this fight. Fair enough. But over in the Balkans junkyard the various mangy old pooches saw it rather differently. And so did the Muslim world, which regarded British and European “neutrality” as a form of complicity in mass murder. As Osama bin Laden put it:

“The British are responsible for destroying the Caliphate system. They are the ones who created the Palestinian problem. They are the ones who created the Kashmiri problem. They are the ones who put the arms embargo on the Muslims of Bosnia so that two million Muslims were killed.”

How come a catalogue of imperial interventions wound up with that bit of scrupulous non-imperial non-intervention? Because great-power “even-handedness” will invariably be received as a form of one-handedness by the time its effects are felt on the other side of the world. Western “even-handedness” on Bosnia was the biggest single factor in the radicalization of European Muslims. They swarmed to the Balkans to support their coreligionists and ran into a bunch of Wahhabi imams moving into the neighborhood with lots of Saudi money and anxious to fill their Rolodex with useful contacts in the west. Among the alumni of that conflict was the hitherto impeccably assimilated English public (i.e., private) schoolboy and London School of Economics student who went on to behead the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl. You always have a dog in the fight, whether you know it or not.

For the Obama administration, this presents a particular challenge – because the president’s preferred rhetorical tic is to stake out the two sides and present himself as a dispassionate, disinterested soul of moderation: “There are those who would argue . . . “ on the one hand, whereas “there are those who insist . . . “ on the other, whereas he is beyond such petty dogmatic positions. That was pretty much his shtick on abortion at Notre Dame. Of course, such studied moderation is usually a crock: Obama is an abortion absolutist, supporting partial-birth infanticide, and even laws that prevent any baby so inconsiderate as to survive the abortion from receiving medical treatment.

So in his recent speech in Cairo he applied the same technique. Among his many unique qualities, the 44th president is the first to give the impression that the job is beneath him – that he is too big and too gifted to be confined to the humdrum interests of one nation state. As my former National Review colleague David Frum put it, the Obama address offered “the amazing spectacle of an American president taking an equidistant position between the country he leads and its detractors and enemies.”

What would you make of that “equidistance” if you were back in the palace watching it on CNN International? Maybe you’d know that, on domestic policy, Obama uses the veneer of disinterested arbiter as a feint. Or maybe you’d just figure that no serious world leader can ever be neutral on vital issues. So you’d start combing the speech for what lies underneath the usual Obama straw men – and women: “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal.” Very brave of you, I’m sure. But what about the Muslim women who choose not to cover themselves and wind up as the victims of honor killings in Germany and Scandinavia and Toronto and Dallas? Ah, but that would have required real courage, not audience flattery masquerading as such.

And so, when the analysts had finished combing the speech, they would have concluded that the meta-message of his “equidistance” was a prostration before “stability” – an acceptance of the region’s worst pathologies as a permanent feature of life.

The mullahs stole this election on a grander scale than ever before primarily for reasons of internal security and regional strategy. But Obama’s speech told them that, in the “post-American world,” they could do so with impunity. Blaming his “agents” for the protests is merely a bonus: Offered the world’s biggest carrot, Khamenei took it and used it as a stick.

He won’t be the last to read Obama this way.


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