Monday, June 22, 2009

Hope Fading, the Iranian People Look to Mr. Obama

By Justin McMahan
June 21, 2009

Note: Andrea and I left Tehran yesterday. We had no choice, really. So many people, fearing arrest, or worse, are getting out while they still can. We will continue to blog from Cairo.

CAIRO – A few days ago, John Kerry penned an op-ed in the New York Times in which he admonished fellow Senator John McCain for criticizing President Obama’s “tepid” response to the Iranian opposition demonstrations. Kerry was right. Mr. McCain’s desire to take on every super or regional power on behalf of the little guy is well intentioned, but ill advised. It would have been a big mistake for the U.S. to insert itself publicly into the Iranian fray, until yesterday.

Until yesterday, the Mousavi-led opposition movement was a force to be reckoned with. The former Prime Minister had the power to summon one million Iranians to Enghelab Square with little more than a rally announcement. Until yesterday, no one knew where the Mousavi train was heading. What was known is that the people who were willing to take to the streets in opposition to the current government far outnumbered those willing to do the same in support of it.

Until yesterday, it would have been a mistake for President Obama to publicly back Mousavi for two reasons. First, this was an election by Iranians, for Iranians. As many opposition supporters told me, vociferous White House support for Mousavi would only serve to undermine the cause.

When Obama made plain his desire to reach out to Iran, he removed the foreign enemy that serves to unite domestic support behind the President and Supreme Leader. Today, the Iranian government needs The Great Satan more than ever. In his sermon at Tehran University last Friday, the Supreme Leader endeavored to cast the UK in that role. That the UK has replaced temporarily the US as The Great Satan is likely due to the BBC’s omnipresent coverage of the current crisis. If CNN had been on the ground during the election, no way the UK would have stolen our Great Satan crown.

Just after the election, a story ran about the break-up of an Israeli plot to bomb twenty mosques on election day. It is impossible to know for sure, but I would bet good money that the motive was the same – to cast Israel in the role of villain of the Islamic Republic. Israel might one day strike the Natanz nuclear facility, but bombing twenty mosques on election day is just not their style. On a side note, having driven by the Natanz facility, I can attest that those puny anti-aircraft guns would not stand a chance in the event of an airstrike.

The second reason it would have been a mistake to publicly back Mousavi is that the US will need to deal with whichever government is in power. Had Obama come out for Mousavi the man, he would have started behind the eight ball in the talks that will likely take place by the end of the year with the Ahmadinejad regime .

But all that changed on Saturday. The outcome of the election is no longer in question. When the Supreme Leader followed through on his promise to crack down on opposition supporters, he took the wind out of the Mousavi sails. On that fateful afternoon, try as I might, I could not find a strand of green fabric within a five block radius of Enghelab hotel, because those seen wearing green were beaten by the police or Basij Militia.

Today, those who oppose the Ahmadinejad government are looking for some sign of hope. They are looking to Mr. Obama.

Now is the time for the President to make public his belief in the right of the Iranian people to gather publicly without fearing a Basiji beating. Supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad have the right to demonstrate publicly. That right should be extended to all Iranians.

This is not a partisan position. It is a human rights position. The Iranian people have fought a valiant fight for the right to have their vote counted. They have sacrificed a great deal. Hundreds have been arrested. Some, like Neda, have been killed. The Iranian people love Americans, and they love Mr. Obama especially. As the leader of the free world, he should offer them some words of support. The Iranian people would never forget it.

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