Obama's Mullah Moment

Monday, 15 June 2009 14:49 By Hossein Askari, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

Obama
Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi rally in Tehran. (Photo: Keystone)

    The Iranian elections are over. Little has changed in the Iranian government. Ahmadinejad is still president! The world is, however, witnessing the plight of a large number of Iranians, young, old, professionals, even the more devout mullahs, yearning for change.

    President Obama has up to now focused on Iran's alleged drive to develop nuclear weapons as his paramount concern with the regime in Tehran. It would appear that Obama is willing to give the mullahs almost anything they want if they just abandon their nuclear quest. Unfortunately, this singular US obsession will not serve the long-term interests of the United States and those of the Iranian people.

    Myopic US policies have helped the mullahs stay in charge for 30 years and have made the average Iranian feel insecure because of support for Iraq during its war with Iran, threats against Iran and economic sanctions. This insecurity has given rise to Iranian support for the development of military deterrents, including the mastering of the nuclear fuel cycle. Ironically, on the one hand, Iranians are becoming increasingly nationalistic and support the mullahs in their quest for security. On the other hand, a significant segment of the Iranians are well aware that their economic and broader human development outlook is bleak in the hands of the mullahs, with little or no hope for future improvement.

    Now that the elections are history, Obama stands poised to make a historic choice about relations with Iran, and that choice must not be limited to the question of what do about Iran's nuclear quest. Obama's real dilemma is rather whether to focus on the mullahs, reaching out them in such a way as to garner short-run support in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the region, to support the aspirations of the Iranian people or possibly a more nuanced approach that is in between these two extremes. Numerous US administrations have faced a similar choice in their approach to other regimes in the past - support the dictator of the day for short-run stability or take a more long-term approach, risking short-run instability, but keeping open the potential development of a stable, free country. Invariably, the US has taken the dictatorial route, and today we pay a heavy price in the form of anti-Americanism around the world.

    The fact is that the mullahs' only real interest is to stay in power. They are practical and corrupt. Their economic policies have been disastrous and un-Islamic, but are intended to buy them short-run support. The mullahs' support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories is not founded on religious solidarity or human concerns. Instead, such backing and anti-American rhetoric is intended to buy admiration among the disenfranchised Muslim masses, affording the mullahs leverage with the United States and further enhancing their chances for survival.

    Can we help the mullahs solidify their hold on power? Yes, but the question is whether they will believe that we won't still be working toward overthrowing them. The mullahs will try to secure every guarantee from us, but the truth is that they will have a hard time believing any US promises. In the end, and no matter what we do, they will only give us guarded and limited support. They will not give up their nuclear quest. No matter what they profess, they will continue to support Hezbollah and other factions in the region "just in case" for future leverage as an insurance policy. Their demand to cease all such support will be that we leave the Persian Gulf region, something they know we won't do.

    What the Iranian people want is security from external aggression, a functioning economy with decent jobs, economic and social justice and generally the opportunity to pursue a better life. They also seek equality for women, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom to choose their government and a chance to revisit the constitution, which they may want to amend now that time has elapsed since the traumas of the revolution. Will the mullahs deliver on this? No.

    Could Obama deliver on the Iranian dream? No. But while Obama cannot give Iranians what they want, he could seriously undermine their cause if he were to accept the election results or to begin the process of rapprochement with Tehran as if nothing had happened.

    The regime is today more vulnerable than it has ever been in its 30 years of existence. Iranians may be in a position to effect a change from the inside. The US should not dash their hopes by affording the mullahs the legitimacy they seek at this vulnerable moment in their rule.

    Instead, supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people at this time would lay the foundation for a true US-Iranian relationship, not one based on the short-term interests of the mullahs or of the United States. Above all, we must refrain from developing a client relationship with the mullahs like what we have with Mubarak or the Al-Sauds. This would be treacherous. The Obama administration should be careful not to overestimate the benefits of the support of the mullahs in Iraq and in Afghanistan/Pakistan, and not underestimate the needs and long-term aspirations of the Iranian people and the affect of turning our backs on our long-term relationship with Iran.

    Therein lies Obama's fundamental opportunity, his "mullah moment." If he totally embraces the mullahs, he will get some, but not all of what he wants from the mullahs, but he will betray the Iranian people, jeopardize their dreams for a better life and, in turn, poison the potential for a truly solid future US-Iranian relationship. In the other extreme, if he neglects the mullahs, we will make no progress in our relations with Iran. The alternative, a middle-of-the-road approach, is to first embrace the needs of the Iranian people, quickly and unilaterally if need be, without accepting the election results. But let a few weeks go by before opening a dialogue with the regime in Tehran. There is no hurry. We have not talked for 30 years. A few more weeks will not matter much. But change could come to Tehran if we keep our hands off!

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    Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Last modified on Monday, 15 June 2009 16:33