Liddick: Correct U.S. response to Iran is mostly silence
Those pushing the Obama Administration to take a harder line on the results of the Iranian elections of June 13 should remember another date: November 4, 1956. For those who don’t immediately recall, that was the day on which the newly established Hungarian People’s Republic was doomed, and the fate of Eastern Europe was sealed for the next 42 years.
It had all begun hopefully 12 days before. Fed up with the dead hand of Moscow’s bureaucrats imposed by an occupying Red Army at the end of the Second World War, Hungarians began a popular uprising, which ended with the creation of a new government under Imre Nagy, himself a communist but willing to engage in unprecedented reforms, including a multi-party political system and a declaration of Hungarian neutrality.
Hungarians were encouraged by the success of a similar movement in Poland, led by Wladyslaw Gomulka. They had been pressed to action for years by Western propaganda broadcasts, particularly by the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Europe, which hailed the Nagy coup in the most effusive terms. Surprisingly, on October 31, Pravda published a short article promising greater equality in relations between the USSR and its satellites, and offering “appropriate negotiations” with the new Hungarian Government. It was all eyewash.
At 4:15 a.m. on November 4, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary. Resistance was fierce, fired in part by suggestions of U.S. aid made in repeated RFE broadcasts. It was heroic, and tragic, and in three days it was all over. The aid never arrived.
If further reminder that words can kill is needed, consider a more recent, and no less shameful, example: the Basra Shi’ite revolt of 1991. Following Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the 100-hour First Gulf War, most of the Shi’ite residents of Iraq’s three southernmost provinces revolted. Again, they received praise and vague promises, but allied forces stood by while they were slaughtered. We still don’t know how many died among those who believed we would help.
Now we are faced with the dilemma of an apparently rigged Iranian presidential election. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets, protesting against the incumbent president and the ruling religious council. President Obama has categorized the resulting violence as “troubling” and has called on Iranian leaders to respect the democratic process. That, aside from a reiteration of our preference for dealing with leaders in whose popular support we can have confidence and a preference for free and open democratic processes, is about as far as our commentary should go.
Being tight-lipped in the face of this crisis is not about abandonment of principle, nor is it a retreat from our historic advocacy of democracy. It is, rather, an acknowledgement that what is happening reflects a split in Iran’s ruling religious council, as well as a calculation of the probable effect of our words and concern for the well-being of the Iranian people.
The calculation is this: if we push hard for a recount, or international observers, or accommodation to the will of those Iranians clamoring for the installation of presidential candidate Mr. Mousavi, how will our pressure translate in Tehran? There is a very real possibility that the incumbent, Mr. Ahmadinejad, would rally the public to his side by railing against the “outside interference” such pressure would represent. This step, in fact, is already under way. Then, identifying his political opponents as a fifth column for Iran’s external enemies, he would turn international pressure for open elections into a hunting license. If you are fortunate enough to know any Iranian Ba’hias, ask them how that works.
The other part of the problem is this: What are we prepared to do about Iran’s flawed presidential election? Our president retains his faith in the persuasive power of speech, and if we speak of Congress or the press, he has reason to be confident. Iranian leadership, however, seems to be made of sterner stuff; neither blandishments nor bluster have turned them from their course on nuclear reprocessing. In fact, Mr. Ahmadinejad used President Obama’s Cairo speech as an example of Western impotence in the face of Iranian defiance – not a good portent.
So if we decide that we are unprepared or unwilling to do more than talk, we should speak only as is necessary. Aside from statements of principle favoring fair and open elections and a clear preference for processes which do not leave the streets littered with bodies, we should remain silent. When tensions run high, we should parse our words carefully to avoid misunderstanding.
In the past we have not done this, and the results have been both bloody and shameful. The president should keep this in mind as he contemplates his next statement on the mess that is the Iranian presidential election.
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