Pragmatic Liberalism in Iran

Simon wrote this morning:

[President Obama] has already been cast in a different role by history -- one of inspiring champion of all those throughout the world who need someone to speak for them… Our president, as chief global advocate of free and open societies, cannot sit on the sidelines as people attempt to throw off the shackles of old and anti-democratic regimes. This moment is too important, this particular leader too powerful, for America not to ambitiously re-assert itself as the great global champion of universal aspirations of all the world's peoples.

I think Simon is right that this will be the central challenge of the Obama Doctrine—to lead the world by example and not by fear. To stand for our values without shoving them down the throats of our partners overseas. To hold America up as a paragon of liberty and justice while, of course, keeping the country safe and secure.

It has been extraordinary to watch the fallout from the hijacking of the Iranian government by President Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Supreme Council. The massive protests we have read about on Twitter, watched on YouTube, and seen in so many incredible photographs continue to gain steam, and there’s no telling where they could lead.

And here we have a situation where our interests and our ideals converge. Moussavi and his followers clearly carry the twin banners of freedom and self-rule in the face of what is, in effect, a military coup. The reformists would, it seems, be more likely to cut a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, and would certainly be easier to work with on the global stage.

But what can we do? What can President Obama say?

The last time our country got involved in Iranian politics, we helped overthrow a democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadeq, and enabled a decade of autocratic rule by the Shah. That misadventure led directly to the 1979 Revolution, and our image hasn’t much improved among the Iranian people since then. Any bold statement by the American president in support of Moussavi would be turned against us as fodder for Ahmadinejad’s populist, anti-American rhetoric. Any evidence of covert American involvement in Iran would shatter the legitimacy of the reformist movement.

President Obama’s challenge is to support this movement in Iran without undermining it, and in this objective, he has been right to hang back and quietly offer an ongoing commitment to negotiations with Iran. As I wrote above, his task is not to enforce democracy, but to enable it when he can, and lead by example when he cannot. Guided by this pragmatic Liberalism, he will have the chance to "ambitiously re-assert America as the great global champion of universal aspirations of all the world's peoples."