When massive turmoil occurs in an important country, U.S. policymakers struggle to make heads or tails of it and arrive at an appropriate reaction. Kibitzers and pundits, however, have no trouble reaching immediate and sweeping conclusions and egging on the policymakers to further their own agendas. So far, President Obama has done a reasonably good job in resisting such on-the-spot analyses and advice on the massive protests over the election in Iran.
Hawks on the right have criticized Obama’s engagement policy with a country they nostalgically remember in the "Axis of Evil" and have urged him to speak out forcefully about alleged election fraud by the Iranian government. Senator John McCain fumed on the "Today" show, "He should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election." Danielle Pletka and Ali Alfoneh of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute argued that you don’t have to be paranoid to wonder if the crude vote rigging was done on purpose to trigger massive protests so that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard could launch a military coup against the theocratic regime. Really? Sounds kinda paranoid to me. And the kind of paranoia that turns the theocratic regime into something even worse — a military dictatorship — thus, casting doubt on Obama’s engagement policy and supporting an AEI-style "get tough" policy on a nefarious country.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Joseph Cirincione of the Plowshares Fund, an avid liberal advocate of negotiating with Iran to convince it to abandon nuclear ambitions, foresees change so fundamental that whatever government is in power will have to appease the multitudes by opening to the West. This development, of course, would provide an even greater opportunity to pursue his goal of Iranian nuclear disarmament. When such political turbulence in a country occurs, outside observers usually see what they want to see and use it as a justification for pushing U.S. policy toward their side of the debate.
But how is Obama weathering the pressure? So far, fairly well. For him and for U.S. policy, the more dangerous of the two camps is the hawkish one. For the hard-liners, getting tough on "evil-doing" Iran is such an end in itself that they choose to ignore the obvious: the historical animosity between the two countries makes whatever the U.S. government supports in Iran radioactive, and it would be used by the Iranian government against the protest movement.
Thus, Obama has been laudably trying to refrain from counterproductive slips of the tongue. Most important, he has said that it would be counterproductive "to be seen as meddling" in the contested Iranian presidential election. But he did say that he had "deep concerns about the election," was deeply troubled by the post-election violence, and called on Iranian leaders to observe the democratic process. He also argued, probably correctly, that policy differences between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, may have been overstated; but he then asserted that, "Either way, we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that historically has been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons."
Although by the standards of an interventionist superpower, Obama has done a credible job of staying out of the Iranian political tumult, it is not enough. Even Obama’s limited concerns and cautions to the Iranian regime have brought charges from that government that the United States is once again meddling in Iran’s internal affairs, which will likely be turned against the protesters by calling them U.S. lackeys. And for a country that began the original historical animosity between the two countries by overthrowing a democratically elected leader to bring back the autocratic Shah, has created its own problems in Iran’s neighborhood by invading and occupying next door Afghanistan and Iraq, has the most capable nuclear arsenal in the world, and supports Israel, the only nuclear power in the neighborhood, such statements by even a relatively modest U.S. president seem arrogant to Iranians.
And because it lives in a rough neighborhood, any government in Iran — reformist or hard-line–will probably continue to have support for its nuclear program from across the Iranian political spectrum, thus dimming Cirincione’s optimistic outlook about negotiating away Iran’s atomic effort.
Obama needs to say even less about the unpredictable Iranian turmoil — in hope that "doing no harm" to the reformists will help them prevail — and be resigned, over the long-term, no matter what kind of government eventually arises, to living with the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran just as we have lived with all the other nuclear-armed countries in the world.