TitleIranian opposition will have to cope without benefit of US pressure

American intervention

24 Mar 2010

■ Ian Burama
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Even as the Iranian government accused President Obama of conspiring to instigate a ‘velvet revolution’ in Iran, some Americans accused the same president of being too soft on Ahmedinejad’s regime. Why didn’t he speak up more forcefully against the savage crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, against the torture of political dissidents, against the alleged rigging of the election last June? If the US truly stands for freedom in the world, Obama’s critics say, then the President should surely have made his outrage clear.

Perhaps he should have. But what would that have achieved, besides making Americans feel more righteous? The US government, with all its military might, has no authority in Iran, and can do little to influence the politics there. More sanctions can be threatened, or even imposed, but there is little prospect of that loosening the clerical dictatorship’s grip. Besides, the US government must balance its diplomatic efforts to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear bomb with its disapproval of Iran’s domestic politics. These two goals are not necessarily in sync.
The other issue, often overlooked by Obama’s righteous critics, is that overt American support is not necessarily an advantage to dissidents in Iran. On the contrary, it allows the regime to paint its opponents as stooges of US imperialism.

In short, President Obama was probably right to maintain a degree of discretion, and leave the protests to the Iranians.

The other issue, often overlooked by Obama’s righteous critics, is that overt American support is not necessarily an advantage to dissidents in Iran. On the contrary, it allows the regime to paint its opponents as stooges of US imperialism

However much we might like the greatest democratic power to intervene in other countries to help people get rid of dictators, interventions are rarely effective. There are exceptions, to be sure. Democracy in Japan and West Germany after World War II was greatly assisted by the US. But those nations lost a catastrophic war, and Germans and Japanese were more than eager to have Americans help them bring freedom and prosperity to their ruined countries.

Then there were the so-called democratic revolutions on the 1980s, in Asia and central Europe. In the European case, there was actually no US intervention. The Velvet Revolutions, in Warsaw, Berlin, and Budapest (the Rumanian case was not entirely clothed in velvet), came about through local rebellions and the Soviet unwillingness to maintain its informal empire by force. President George H. W. Bush was in fact alarmed at first by the revolts in central Europe, and hoped that they could be contained. If anyone was responsible for the collapse of European dictatorships, it was Mikhail Gorbachev.
The US had more to do with the end of dictatorships in Asia. The death of the Marcos regime in the Philippines was clear as soon as the Reagan administration stopped supporting it. But this was a coup de grace, and a belated one at that. At first Ronald Reagan was reluctant to challenge the results of a rigged election in 1986.

The military dictatorship in South Korea also knew its days were numbered when the US supported Korean demands for a free election. And the same was true of Taiwan. But these were somewhat special cases. The US had great clout in these countries, because the dictators were essentially clients of US military largesse during the Cold War. They were supported, as long as the Communist powers posed a credible threat. When the Cold War petered out in the 1980s, the anti-Communist strongmen could no longer count on American support, and without it, they were unable to resist the demands for democracy from their own people.
Iran is not a client state of the US. If the Shah had still been in power in the 1980s, it is possible that his country would have gone the same way as South Korea, The Philippines or Taiwan. The Shah was a client and had to take note of Washington’s views. Alas, however, Iran did not have a Velvet Revolution, but got the Ayatollah Khomeini instead. His successors, Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad have no reason to listen to the US.

And so the democratic opposition in Iran will have to cope without the benefit of US pressure. On the one hand this will make their task more difficult. But if eventually they succeed, their position will be all the stronger, for no one will be able say that the road to Iranian liberty was paved by foreigners.

Tehran Review
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  1. Tori says:

    I have a few questions: In the end, wasn’t the 1979 revolution in Iran in fact a velvet one? Perhaps even the first of the velvet revolutions? Question 2: do you think that maybe America’s sanctions have, in fact, propped up the regime and created a kind of mafia state in Iran with too much economic power in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards? If so, than maybe the opposite of American pressure could bring about change: the, albeit, unpopular lifting of nearly all sanctions and normalization of economic relations… I am just thinking out loud here in the comment box.

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