After yesterday’s unrest in Iran it is clear that the revolution is hot again, after conveniently taking a week off so the Western media could breathlessly cover the whereabouts of Michael Jackson’s body. The green revolution is less convenient from the point of view of nearly everyone attempting to prevent Iran’s nuclear program.
After Obama took office his strategy on Iran seemed clear: by taking a hard line with Israel and reaching out to the Muslim World in Cairo he was attempting to reestablish the U.S. as an impartial actor in the region, even as he solidified support from Russia and China to present a unified international front. Israel was the crucial to this plan, both because progress on a Palestinian final status agreement would weaken Iran’s position in the Muslim world and because Israel’s bluster was the bad cop to Obama’s good cop. The leadership in the Arab world is certainly receptive to Obama, though whether or not China and Russia would agree to tougher sanctions remains unclear. However, this measured plan has been upset by the events in Tehran.
The brutal crackdown against the protesters demonstrates that the regime is, and probably always has been, illegitimate and brutally repressive. Iran’s credibility on the Muslim streets as a the antidote to American imperialism is damaged, making it unaccountable to foreign public opinion as it suppresses domestic unrest. Thus, Iran’s current leadership has “gone rogue” (I can’t remember if that is a Palinism or a description of Palin) and it must be prevented from further destabilization of the region at any cost.
Yet, it is clear that the civilian population of Iran does not agree with their leadership and their humanity is demonstrated in a thousand ways every day. A military strike, especially from the air, would kill many supporters of the nascent pro-democracy revolution, if not the revolution itself. Further, unless such an attack could accomplish regime change, impossible if done by Israel, it seems unlikely that it could do more than very temporarily delay the nuclear program.
So how to proceed when any negotiations will have to be conducted with a regime that is clearly illegitimate, that will attempt to gain legitimacy from the negotiations themselves, and a military option with limited gains and huge costs? If Obama’s leverage in negotiations is the threat of punitive sanctions, then he must ensure China and Russia’s full participation, which – given the weak statement on Iran’s nuclear program that came out of the G-8– seems far from assured. Beyond that, perhaps the green revolution can ratchet up the internal pressure on the regime, but what is the end game for the removal of a regime willing to kill its children? Obama’s wait and see approach is not just prudent given this current morass, it seems to be the only thing possible.