The day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, Vice President Joe Biden declared, "I say to our Iranian friends: Let your people march. Let your people speak. Release your people." Robert Gibbs, in his last news conference as White House spokesman, echoed Biden: "The Iranian government should allow the Iranian people to exercise the very same right of peaceful assembly and the ability to communicate their desires." President Obama, meanwhile, warned regional regimes that they "can't maintain power through coercion."
Their call stands in contrast to the administration's posture at the start of the Egyptian unrest. Then, Biden used a PBS NewsHour appearance to deny that Mubarak was a dictator, and Gibbs explained, "It is not up to us to determine when the grievances of the Egyptian people have been met by the Egyptian government."
Give Obama's team credit for applying the lessons of Cairo to Tehran.
The Obama administration's new approach also stands in sharp contrast to its previous posture toward Iranian demonstrators. In 2009, fearing that too much support for the demonstrators might undercut his diplomatic outreach to the Iranian government, Obama hesitated to encourage the Green Movement. Even as demonstrators in Tehran chanted, "Obama, you're either with us or against us," he stood aside.
Across the Middle East, Iran and the United States have been engaged in a proxy war for influence. Shortly after Obama called on the Iranian regime to unclench its fist, the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guard declared American influence to be in retreat not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Gaza. A week before Mubarak's ultimate fall, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave his official sermon - Iran's equivalent of a State of the Union address - in which he declared, "Events in Egypt, Tunisia and some other countries have a special meaning for the Iranian nation. We have always predicted that our revolution would lead to an Islamic awakening."
The following week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used a Tehran rally to address the Egyptian people. "It is your right to be free. Popular sovereignty is your right as well," he declared. "It is your right to choose what type of rulers and who exactly you want. It is your right to govern."
For the Obama administration to call Ahmadinejad's bluff was as brilliant as it was overdue. After all, American fears of Iran's nuclear program have far less to do with nuclear weapons than they do with the regime that would yield them.
The Iranian people are far more moderate than their government, and if they can unravel the Islamic Republic, then the Middle East might be a far different place. After all, when unpaid Iranian workers marched in 2002, they adopted the slogan, "Forget about Palestine and think about us." Four years later, Iranians protested government grants of money to Hezbollah following that group's war with Israel.
Moral clarity - a major ingredient of so-called "neoconservative" foreign policy - should be America's new realism. No matter how sincere Obama has been in his outreach to Iran's leadership, he must recognize that rapprochement is impossible: Khamenei believes his regime to be in an existential struggle with the United States. Against this backdrop, silence is never a virtue. Direct outreach to the Iranian people - encouraging their aspiration for freedom - is not just morally the right thing to do; it strengthens American national security.
Still, words will not be enough to bring the Iranian people their freedom. Egypt mans its army by conscription. The protesters in Tahrir Square cheered the Egyptian Army because the soldiers were the people. The Iranian people, on the other hand, have a formidable opponent in the Revolutionary Guard, an elite force charged with defending Iran not only from foreign enemies, but also from internal challenges. Iranians know the guardsmen will not hesitate to use brute force. They are, in effect, Khamenei's storm troopers.
Breaking the Revolutionary Guard will not be easy. Iran is a tinderbox. The question is whether the regime can extinguish flames quicker than the Iranian public can ignite them.
Through words and sanctions, if America helps to drive a wedge between the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian people, we might succeed. At the very least, we will be on the right side of history.