President Obama has betrayed the pro-democracy protesters in Tehran. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators are risking their lives to contest Iran’s rigged elections. They understand that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election was a fraud and that his main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, is the victim of a stolen election.
Millions of Iranian ballots have been cast aside. In the face of a popular uprising, the theocratic regime is resorting to a brutal, Tiananmen Square-style crackdown. Dissidents have been murdered. Opposition leaders, student activists and Iranian journalists have been arrested. The feared Basij, Iran’s government-backed militia, roam the streets, like fascist brownshirts, assaulting peaceful protesters and indiscriminately shooting at rallies. Innocent blood is being shed on the streets of Tehran, and Mr. Obama remains circumspect - almost cowardly.
The best the president can muster is that he is “concerned” by the election results and “troubled” by the “suppression” of peaceful dissent. His top priority is that America not be seen as “meddling” in Iran’s internal affairs. Mr. Obama is convinced that nothing - including a possible democratic revolution - must derail his “grand bargain” to negotiate an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. This is realpolitik at its worst.
Mr. Obama is a postmodernist leftist who champions moral equivalence and cultural relativism. He has apologized repeatedly for the CIA’s reported role in the 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s democratically elected government. Hence, being “sensitive” to the delicate history of U.S.-Iranian relations, he refuses to interfere for fear of bolstering the regime’s reactionary, pro-Ahmadinejad elements. The Iranian people are paying dearly for Mr. Obama’s multiculturalism.
An American president is again violating Iranian democracy - although this time before it can even be installed. The opposition protesters need bold leadership, not caution, from Washington.
On the surface, there is very little difference between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Mousavi. Both men are Islamic fundamentalists, both support the conservative clerical establishment and, most important, both back Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In fact, Mr. Mousavi was a loyal follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As prime minister, he personally ordered the first purchase of centrifuge equipment for Tehran’s nuclear program. Hence, he is not the solution but part of the problem.
This is all true - and irrelevant. Iran is at a fundamental turning point. Today’s protests in Tehran are similar to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Then, Hungarians disenchanted with Soviet imperial rule rallied around an unlikely figure, Imre Nagy, who was a creature of the communist system. Yet his leadership galvanized Hungary’s fledgling opposition.
When Moscow sent tanks into Budapest to crush the popular uprising, President Eisenhower - to his eternal shame - stood by and did nothing. The result: Hungary suffered for 33 more years under totalitarian rule. Moreover, a golden opportunity to inspire liberation movements across Eastern Europe was squandered.
The Iranian uprising is a direct result of deep cracks in the regime. The mullocracy is fragile and buckling under the weight of accumulated popular resentments. The mullahs have mismanaged the economy. Corruption is rampant. Poverty and unemployment are soaring. Thirty years of rigid autocratic theocracy, in which messianic Shi’itism has been shoved down the throats of Iranians, has left much of the population disgusted with the ruling elite. Women’s groups, students, labor unions, the urban middle class, ethnic minorities - all of them are ready for a modernizing revolution. The time is ripe for regime change - if only Washington has the will and vision to seize it.
Mr. Mousavi has become the unlikely symbol for his country’s emerging democracy. He is Iran’s Mikhail Gorbachev. He is unleashing powerful forces that he - and other disgruntled clerics - will not be able to control. Already, his call for a new election has severely undermined the regime’s legitimacy.
After initially fully supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - who has the final say on matters of state - had to backtrack and demand a partial vote recount. Mr. Mousavi rightly rejected the proposal. The genie is out of the bottle. The supreme leader no longer reigns supreme. His authority is ebbing, and he increasingly is perceived as a weak puppet of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s.
This is a palace coup. The hard-line military-security elite is elevating Mr. Ahmadinejad to a position of dominance. The sclerotic clerical establishment is being subordinated - and in some ways, supplanted. The regime is in crisis.
The opposition protests threaten to discredit and sweep away the key institutions of the Islamic Republic. Most Iranians rightly sense that Mr. Ahmadinejad and the apocalyptic mullahs are taking Iran down the path to national suicide. Once Tehran acquires the bomb, a nuclear showdown with Israel is not only likely, but inevitable. It is not just Israel that will be wiped off the map. So will Iran.
Mr. Obama’s failure to speak out courageously on behalf of Iran’s pro-democracy movement is a profound betrayal of American values and interests. An Iran minus Mr. Ahmadinejad and with the hard-liners in retreat is a safer Iran - both to its neighbors and to the world. Mr. Obama’s failure is one of nerve and statesmanship. Protesters are dying on the streets and rotting in Tehran’s prisons. They need support. They need encouragement. They need to hear that the leader of the Free World will not abandon them - no matter how dire the situation. Instead, all they hear are meek, empty words from a meek, empty president. History will not forgive him.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist and president of the Edmund Burke Institute, a Washington-based think tank.