The Iranian government has suffered a serious blow to its legitimacy, but that blow is not fatal. Barring dramatic and unlikely changes in the ensuing weeks, the regime will remain intact, by force if necessary. As much as we might like it to be otherwise, that is the reality Washington faces.
Critics—including many advocates of engagement with Iran who argue that Obama's policy of negotiating with the country has to be delayed or scrapped entirely—misread the situation, as do those calling for rhetorical grand gestures from the White House. Lost in the clamor is sober reflection on how best to serve American interests, which sometimes conflict with the desire to make emotionally satisfying but ineffective and even counterproductive declarations in favor of anti-regime protesters.
The protests were always going to face an enormous uphill battle against the government, and the Obama administration has given them their best chance for success by refusing to act as their cheerleader. The United States will not and should not intervene with direct action. Consequently, provocative language from the White House would likely only incite a bloodier crackdown. The protesters are already risking their lives—it would be unconscionable for the president to put them in greater danger by making proclamations that lend them no real aid and serve only to appease his domestic critics. It is ironic in the extreme that the same critics who rail against the president for his so-called "narcissism" should demand that Obama insert himself into an internal Iranian drama with potentially disastrous consequences for the people in the streets of Iran.
Advocates of engagement have become more skeptical of the wisdom of negotiating with Tehran in light of Ahmadinejad's re-election. However, it is precisely the hard-liners in power in Iran who will be best positioned to deliver a deal and who will be most in need of the international credibility that a deal would bring.
The United States can gain influence with Tehran whether or not the protesters succeed, but this opportunity can be quickly lost. Major and rising powers in Asia and elsewhere are eager to work with the Iranian government regardless of what has happened in the past week—witness the embrace of Ahmadinejad in Yekaterinburg, Russia, at the summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization. All of this minimizes the international pressure Washington can bring against Iran, and it reduces the incentives for Tehran to make deals with the United States.
It is distasteful to bargain with repressive regimes, but our interests sometimes demand it. The frustrating truth is that by pursuing decades of isolation and vilification of the Iranian regime, the United States now has less leverage with Iran than any other major power. European states that have full trading relationships with Iran have been able to speak out more forcefully against the regime—as France has—both because they do not have our historical baggage of hostility and intervention, and because they can penalize Iran by reducing economic ties. It is engagement—not isolation—that increases influence with authoritarian states. Continuing to refuse to talk with Tehran will only hamper our own efforts in the region and limit our influence. For example, with ongoing military campaigns on either side of Iran, it is clearly in the U.S.'s interest to gain additional supply routes into Afghanistan through Iran, and to prevent Iran from stirring up violence in Iraq.
While we may sympathize with the plight of Iranian protesters, we should also think carefully about what revolution, regime collapse, and the possible fissuring of the state would mean for regional stability and the security of American forces. The experience of Iraq should remind Americans that political convulsion is often accompanied by other upheavals, including violence. Those consequences are never entirely foreseeable and the costs are always borne most heavily by civilians. It would be the height of folly and the ultimate expression of national narcissism for our government to cheer for a revolution without considering the price to be paid by those who live with its consequences.
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