Thursday, June 25, 2009

Missing the Point on Iran

Why a preening opportunist like John McCain has any credibility left on Iran after joking about bombing it is beyond me, but nonetheless, there he was yesterday, flanked by the usual suspects and just loving the spotlight:
"As Joe said, we don’t take the side of either candidate. There seems to be some confusion about that. We take the side of the Iranian people to have human rights, to have the freedom that we deem universal. And this argument about that somehow the government may be more repressive if we speak out on behalf of the people, we’ve seen that movie before.

The liberal left, during the Cold War so warned that if we spoke out for the people who are captive nations, members of captive nations, that that would lead to greater oppression. We found out after the Berlin Wall came down that we were, in their words, a beacon of hope and liberty and freedom for them.

So the liberal left will, again, continue to argue that we should be nice to the Iranian regime and we shouldn’t encourage dissidence. That is in direct contradiction to the fundamental principles of the United States of America."

Where do you start? With the baseless charge that anyone - much less the American left - is arguing that we should "be nice" to the regime? With the lie that the "liberal left" (and here, he must be referring to President Obama) is discouraging dissidence? The President - and, as far as I can tell, other Democrats - have done no such thing. (To say nothing of the sneering smile creeping over McCain's face - which, if you happen to see video of this, you're bound to notice - when he attacked the "liberal left." Trying to score partisan political points over this is disgusting.)

But addressing these arguments one by one would miss the larger point: Iran's brave protestors would be seriously harmed by overzealous American involvement in their efforts.

McCain, in the passage I quoted above, is conflating two distinct arguments:
1) That there are some people (of course, they are left unnamed) who are insisting we must not speak out against human rights violations in Iran because it would increase the regime's oppressiveness.
2) That the dread "liberal left" (again composed of these suspicious unnamed characters) is arguing that "we should be nice to the Iranian regime and we shouldn’t encourage dissidence."
For McCain, these are one and the same - that America, by not sufficiently backing the victims of the regime's brutality, is being "nice" and discouraging dissidence.

But this is an incredibly misleading way of presenting the dilemma faced by the international community. President Obama has been wise to focus his comments not on the protestors and their cause, but on the government and its actions. By condemning the violence against mostly-peaceful protestors, the United States can advance legitimate concerns about human rights without seeming to take sides on what are basically political questions: was there election fraud, and is Ahmadinejad a legitimate president? (The answers to those questions are unknown, of course, but they're probably "yes" and "almost certainly not," especially if one considers not just this election, but the Iranian electoral process overall.)

For what it's worth, the United States has spoken out about human rights violations in Iran: President Obama declared that he was "appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days." He added, "I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost." Yet even this relatively strong language is wisely cautious: it focuses merely on the regime's actions against the protestors, not on the legitimacy of the protestors' cause.

So McCain's first argument - that there is somehow silence over the atrocities taking place in Iran - is just wrong. And it does not follow, despite his confused declarations, that the United States is being "nice" to the regime or discouraging dissidents from protesting against the election results. In fact, the US has done little to discourage or encourage dissidence, and for good reason.

For the supporters of Mousavi to have any credibility, it is absolutely crucial that their efforts be understood as an internal rebellion of Iran's people against their government. It is therefore necessary for the United States to focus its limited influence on condemning and deploring the regime's actions against its own citizens, in order to underscore the fact that the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are not locked in a struggle against the United States, but against their own people. Openly encouraging continued actions against the regime - which McCain apparently wants the US to do - would be taking sides, and it would undermine Mousavi's supporters terribly. Iran is crushing its own people in the streets. It is beating them with clubs, hacking them with axes, and shooting unarmed peaceful protestors, including young women. In this struggle, the enemy of the Iranian government is the Iranian people. For those courageous people to have any chance of success, we must not make this about us.

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