The Obama Administration's response to the ongoing Iranian election crisis has been remarkably intelligent.
Rather than make blustering statements in support of one side or the other, President Obama has urged restraint and caution when it comes to US commentary on what is going on in Iran. In a CNBC interview, he told the press,
It is not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations to be seen as meddling - the US president, meddling in Iranian elections.
Obama shows himself to be a wise student of history by taking this stance. The last time the Iranian people had a functioning democracy was under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Following efforts by Mossadegh to nationalize the oil industry, American and British intelligence agencies organized astroturf protests and eventually had him overthrown. What followed was the brutal reign of the autocratic Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Most Iranians view the Shah's reign as a very dark period of their history, and they harbor resentment against the American government for organizing the coup that toppled their last truly freely and democratically elected government. Which is why if the United States chose to intervene in this election on behalf of the protesters, hard-liners within Iran could easily portray the student movement as nothing more than the sort of demonstrations that acted as tools of the Western governments to overthrow Iran's government in 1953. This would ultimately undermine the pro-democracy movement within Iran and turn public support towards Iranian reactionaries.
Judging from commentary in the blogosphere, many Americans are already convinced by suggestions that have been carried in the media that the Presidential election in Iran was stolen. [Some press reports have been a bit more careful: the lead paragraph of the front page story in Sunday's New York Times says that "it is impossible to know for sure" if the result reflects the popular will.]
But the evidence that has been presented so far that the election was stolen has not been convincing.
Iran does not allow independent international election observers, and there is a scarcity of independent, systematic data.
But shortly before the election, Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation published a poll that was financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Based on this poll, the official result - a victory for Ahmadinejad in the first round - was entirely predictable. "Ahmadinejad Front Runner in Upcoming Presidential Elections," the poll reported.
The poll was conducted between May 11 and May 20, and claimed a margin of error of 3.1%. Among its respondents, 34% said they would vote for incumbent President Ahmadinejad, 14% said they would vote for Mir Hussein Moussavi, 2% said they would vote for Mehdi Karroubi, and 1% said they would vote for Mohsen Rezai. Declared support for these four candidates represented 51% of the sample; 27% of the sample said they didn't know who they would vote for. [This accounts for 78% of the sample; the survey report doesn't explicitly characterize the other 22% of the sample, but presumably they were divided between those who did not intend to vote and those who refused to respond to the question.
President Obama has the opportunity to make history in Cairo on Thursday, the kind of history that President Eisenhower made when he rebuked the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel. Eisenhower's stand won tremendous goodwill for the U.S. in the Arab world. If Obama stands firm on his policy differences with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he can win tremendous goodwill for the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim world.
In the run-up to the speech, Obama has opened space between U.S. policy and Israeli government policy on relations with the Palestinians and on relations with Iran. The degree to which Obama can meaningfully differentiate the U.S. from the Netanyahu government in terms of policy will be a key determinant of whether he can convince Arab and Muslim audiences that the U.S. genuinely wants a different relationship with the Muslim world than it had during the Bush Administration. In Cairo, Obama will have the podium in the Arab and Muslim world in an unprecedented way. If Obama highlights his strong opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, his support for Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, his sustained diplomatic engagement with Iran, and his willingness to work with whoever wins the upcoming Lebanese and Iranian elections, he can change perceptions of the United States in the region.
On opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, Obama has staked out a clear position. Last week, Secretary of State Clinton said that President Obama:
Despite what some right-wing critics in the media and Congress would have you believe, Americans support President Obama's outreach to Iran and Cuba. The New York Times reports, based on a recent poll, that
the public does give Mr. Obama credit for improving the image of the United States with the rest of the world. And it found support for Mr. Obama's overtures to Iran and Cuba; a majority, 53 percent, said they favored establishing diplomatic relations with Iran, while two-thirds favored Mr. Obama's plans to thaw relations with Cuba.
If you look at the actual poll questions and responses, the results are even more striking. On Iran, the poll asked:
Do you think the United States should or should not establish diplomatic relations with Iran while Iran has a nuclear program?
and the response was
In response to President Obama's Nowruz overture, Iranian officials said: words are nice, but that what Iran is looking for is concrete changes in U.S. policy. Remarkably, such Iranian statements were presented in much of the U.S. press as evidence that Iranian officials aren't interested in improving relations. Another interpretation is at least plausible: Iran is looking for concrete changes in U.S. policy.
Treating a request for changes as an insult would make sense if we agree to assume that the U.S. is congenitally incapable of making concrete changes in U.S. policy towards Iran. But of course, that's not true at all. On the contrary, the U.S. finds itself like a kid in a candy store, confronted by so many choices for concrete policy changes to improve relations with Iran that one hardly knows where to begin. Here, by way of example, are twelve steps the U.S. could take to improve relations.
1. Authorize routine contact between U.S. and Iranian diplomats.
Right now, if you are a U.S. diplomat in any country, in any international forum, and an Iranian diplomat standing next to you sneezes, you have to apply to Washington for permission to say "Gezundheit." There are a lot of issues in the world, and on many of them, the United States and Iran see eye to eye. Our diplomats are not going to get Shiite cooties if they are allowed to engage Iranian diplomats in regular conversation.
2. Establish a US interests section in Tehran.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell is reporting that Dennis Ross "will be coming back to the State Department as a 'strategic advisor' on the Near East and Gulf region":
He will not be described as an envoy negotiating agreements and will not be involved in Middle East talks. That job will be up to former Sen. George Mitchell, who returns tonight from his first "listening tour" of the region.
But before the papers are signed for Ross' new employment with the US government, he should be asked a few questions about his relationship with the "Jewish People Policy Planning Institute," that group's relationship to the Government of Israel, and whether he has had any relationships which he should have disclosed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
President-elect Obama pledged he would engage with Iran without pre-conditions. As a recent "expert's statement" chaired by Ambassadors Pickering and Dobbins has argued, talking with Iran would lower tensions in the region; help stabilize Iraq; facilitate Iran’s cooperation in helping to stabilize Afghanistan; and facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria. The experts say direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations are most likely to succeed, and that we should adopt policies to facilitate contacts between scholars, professionals, religious leaders, lawmakers and ordinary citizens.
The Obama Administration can take concrete steps immediately to facilitate these contacts. We can open a “U.S. interests section” - low-level diplomatic representation - in Tehran. For the first time in many years, the U.S. would have diplomatic representation in Iran. Even the outgoing Bush Administration indicated that it wanted to do this. The U.S. has an “interests section” in Cuba; Iran has an “interests section” in Washington. There is broad agreement in Washington that there should be more interaction between Iranians and Americans. If there were a “U.S. interests section” in Tehran, Iranian students would no longer have to travel outside Iran to apply for visas to study in the United States, making it easier for Iranians to study here. We can also allow direct passenger airline flights between Tehran and New York.
These steps would bring immediate benefits in making it easier for Iranian citizens to travel to the United States; they would also be first steps towards greater diplomatic engagement between Iran and the United States.
Senator McCain, President Bush, and some of their oil industry friends are urging Americans to support overturning a 26-year ban on offshore drilling as a way to bring down gas prices. Of course, it’s snake oil designed for what the Joe Lieberman campaign affectionately called “low information voters.”
As Dean Baker and Nichole Szembrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research noted in a June 2008 paper,
the Energy Information Agency (EIA) projects that Senator McCain’s proposal would have no impact in the near-term since it will be close to a decade before the first oil can be extracted from the currently protected offshore areas. The EIA projects that production will reach 200,000 barrels a day (0.2 percent of projected world production) at peak production in close to twenty years. It describes this amount as too small to have any significant effect on oil prices.
In contrast, if the United States had continued raising auto fuel efficiency standards annually between 1985-2005 by a quarter of the amount it raised them annually from 1980-1985 — instead of leaving them virtually unchanged — the result would have roughly been the equivalent of 3.3 million barrels of oil per day in new production in 2008 — 16 times the impact of McCain’s Offshore Drilling [MOD], CEPR reports.
What about the impact of lifting sanctions on Iran?
In recent weeks we've again seen an escalation of US/Israeli threats to attack Iran. Among many other examples, the House of Representatives is currently considering a resolution promoted by AIPAC that would effectively demand a blockade against Iran. This resolution has over 200 co-sponsors, although a surge of opposition has prevented it from being passed so far. (The resolution is H. Con. Res. 362; you can ask your Representatives to oppose it here.)
Here's what those promoting military attacks and blockades on Iran don't want Americans to know: there's an offer on the table that could resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program and allow both sides to claim victory.
In this short interview, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering makes the case for talks with Iran without pre-conditions on multilateral uranium enrichment in Iran.
In March, Ambassador Pickering co-authored "A Solution for the US-Iran Nuclear Standoff" in the New York Review of Books. Pickering and his co-authors wrote: