Tear gas was still wafting through the streets of Tehran when, at a June 23 White House press conference, The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney conveyed an Iranian's question to President Obama: "Under which conditions would you accept the election of [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working towards?"
Obama avoided a direct answer, saying only that the Iranian government should "recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity," and expressing hope that the clerics would take it. The president's implicit acceptance of Ahmadinejad is a mistake. Obama may express concern about how the election was handled, but to Iranians, the real issue is a much broader question: the regime's very legitimacy.
In the Islamic Republic, elections are not democratic. The Guardian Council, a group of strictly traditionalist mullahs, must approve all candidates for office, and in the most recent election, it allowed less than 1 percent of would-be candidates to run. Why then hold elections? To demonstrate public support for the regime. As Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the Guardian Council, explained two days before the vote: "The enemies have always tried to question the legitimacy of the regime by trying to reduce public participation in elections. The people must blind the eyes of the enemies by vast participation in elections."
The Iranian rulers' equation of the election with a blessing of their regime's legitimacy makes neutrality difficult. To accept the election is to endorse theocracy. Indeed, this is how young Iranians marching on the street frame the question. The clumsy disfranchisement of former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi's supporters may have sparked the recent unrest, but the protests turned into something bigger when demonstrators began chanting, "Death to the dictator!" -- meaning Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the "supreme leader" who claims authority from God. Such cries are calls for the downfall of the theocracy itself.
So why has Obama sought to chart a neutral course? His attempt to walk a tightrope between the desire not to meddle and the imperative to express American outrage at brutal scenes on Tehran's streets is based on two false assumptions -- one legal and the other strategic -- as well as a misplaced moral concern.
The president's first mistake, an exaggerated respect for international rules, appears to stem from his advisers' interpretation of the Algiers Accords. These were the Jan. 19, 1981, agreement that led to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's release of the hostages held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In a last-minute Iranian addition to the agreement, which was accepted by Warren Christopher, the Carter administration's deputy secretary of state, the United States pledged "not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs." That sounds pretty categorical, but Obama should pay the prohibition no heed.
Christopher was negotiating under intense time pressure to obtain the hostages' release, a goal achieved the next day, minutes after Reagan's inauguration. Subsequently, Washington and Tehran used the accords only as a means to regulate financial claims. To be sure, the Iranian government sometime cites the Algiers Accords to declare U.S. policies -- for example, the Clinton administration's economic sanctions -- illegal, but every U.S. administration has treated such claims as baseless.
Only under George W. Bush, amidst his administration's efforts to boost radio broadcasting into Iran and its internal debate over funding for Iranian democracy and civil-society groups, did the State Department accept Iranian interpretations of the Algiers Accords and question whether policies under consideration were compatible with it. The debate over that question was fierce, but it ended when former national security advisers consulted by the State Department said the department's interpretation of the Accords was inconsistent with those of previous administrations.
In any case, even if the Algiers Accords do somehow prohibit rhetorical assistance to Iranian civil society, Obama need not worry: As a mere executive agreement not ratified by Congress, the Accords do not rise to the level of a treaty. The United States has no legal obligation to accommodate the Islamic Republic's concerns.
Obama's second mistake has been an excessive caution about seeming to incite the protests. On June 15, breaking two days of White House silence after their eruption, Obama declared, "We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States' being the issue inside of Iran." Such concern is misguided. With Iran's economy tanking and a young population disdainful of clerical rule, the Iranian government routinely promulgates wild theories about foreign meddling as a way to shirk responsibility. Iranians are nationalistic, but they are not stupid, so these oft-repeated lies have no credibility. True, U.S. endorsement of a candidate before elections would backfire, but no U.S. policymaker has ever suggested such a thing. Speaking for the broader principles of liberty, justice, and free and fair elections does not undercut the protesters.
Part of Obama's reticence may be reflect his advisers' tendency to conflate the Islamic Republic's longstanding and somewhat limited "reform movement" with Iranian civil society as a whole. True, many of the pre-2009 reformists have said that U.S. assistance taints them. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, for example, Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan blamed Bush's advocacy of democracy for a backlash that culminated in Ahmadinejad's 2005 victory. This theory conflicts with claims from unsuccessful candidates in the 2005 election that Ahmadinejad won that vote through widespread fraud -- claims whose credibility the most recent election has heightened. Regardless, Derakhshan showed his and the reform movement's true colors when he endorsed the regime's use of forced confessions from dissidents. As the liberal American journalist Laura Secor wrote in 2005, "Iran's reform movement, for all its courage, was the loyal opposition in a fascist state." It is unwise for Obama to permit this small group, rather than the much larger and more moderate body of Iranians who oppose the theocracy, to guide U.S. policy.
This does not mean that all dissidents want U.S. assistance. Journalist Akbar Ganji voices a common complaint when he says that U.S. assistance provides an excuse for government repression. Yet when Ganji was sent to prison for six years, Bush had not yet taken office. Obama should realize that the Islamic Republic's repression predates any U.S. support for the Iranian people. The 1988 massacre of more than 3,000 imprisoned dissidents -- described in Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri's memoirs -- had nothing to do with Washington and everything to do with the character of the Iranian regime.
Then there is the Obama administration's misplaced moral concern, which rests on the idea that offering rhetorical support for the Iranians would burden the White House with responsibility for their welfare. The root of this worry is George H. W. Bush's entreaty in 1991 that the Iraqi people rise up against Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi government massacred tens of thousands in putting down the subsequent rebellion while the United States watched. But the supposed parallel with the present Iranian situation is faulty, because the Iranian crackdown began before Obama made any statement and grew in strength while he waffled. And as the case of Solidarity and martial law in Poland demonstrated in 1981, the risk of a crackdown does not necessarily outweigh the benefit of providing moral support to a protest movement: There, what in the short term was a setback eventually proved a watershed and was followed by positive and lasting change.
Obama's initial neutrality neither kept the Iranian government from calling the demonstrators foreign agents nor spared them a harsh crackdown. In a nationally broadcast sermon on June 26, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami called the protest leaders "worthy of execution" and declared, "Anyone who fights against the Islamic system or the leader of Islamic society, fight him until complete destruction." Security forces continue to arrest students and professors and harass Iranians working at foreign embassies in Tehran. Precedent suggests that Mousavi himself may be destined for exile, a premature death, or both. While U.S.-based Iranian academics praise Obama's hands-off approach, many ordinary Iranians have used Twitter to appeal for the world's moral support.
The protests have shifted the paradigm on Iran, and this should make Obama reconsider his approach. While every president since Carter has reached out to the Iranian people, Obama has made recognizing the legitimacy of Iran's theocracy a cornerstone of his policy. In his March 20 message for the Persian New Year, he declared, "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran [as opposed to simply "Iran"] to take its rightful place in the community of nations."
The street protests may be ending, but the larger battle over the Islamic Republic's legitimacy is just beginning. Certainly, 30 years after the revolution, the failure of the Iranian people to embrace theocracy highlights the regime's vulnerability. It is hard to preach that "our nation is united, and unity in Iran is a role model for the entire world," as Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, did in January, when people chant "Death to the dictator!" in the streets.
As the White House makes policy, it should not give to Tehran what the Iranian people withhold. Obama may face calls to engage the mullahs over Iran's nuclear program, for example, but U.S. interests and moral leadership need not be mutually exclusive. Diplomacy is no panacea, and talk is a tactic, not a strategy. Rushing into negotiations -- and bestowing legitimacy on the regime -- rewards the Islamic Republic for its nuclear program and thereby encourages its continuance. The irony is that the forces suppressing the Iranian people -- the supreme leader and his Revolutionary Guards -- are the very forces that command and control the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
Recognition that the American and Iranian peoples have a common foe should form the basis of a long-term strategy that seeks the triumph of the Iranian people over a destabilizing and unpredictable regime.