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Western Hubris Won't Reform Iran


In the days and weeks following the hotly contested Iranian presidential election, many western analysts, journalists and pundits -- and even some respected Iran experts -- have seemingly become imbued with a kind of revolutionary hubris. Inspired by the brave young Iranians who have taken to the streets of Tehran and elsewhere on behalf of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, these commentators quickly grabbed the banner of the "green" revolutionaries, and subsequently took to their respective columns and blogs in solidarity with these daring Mousavites. A democratic revolution was afoot, and it became their job -- no, their responsibility -- to catalog the accounts of this historic event.

Just one problem remained: there was little evidence of any such revolution.

Hundreds of thousands of justifiably outraged Iranians did indeed march in protest of the likely fraudulent election results, demanding that their votes be counted and their voices be heard. And while these demonstrations were at first large and impactful, they quickly -- and understandably -- dissipated once the oppressive Iranian police state began to flex its muscle. The political fallout that would soon follow resembled more an internal conflict of high profile insiders than a national sea change, as entrenched elites with conflicting interests embedded themselves with their preferred side.

But while the crowds began to dwindle in Iran, the opinion pages and blog postings of several leading news outlets and analysts continued to confuse the embers of factional discontent for a raging wildfire. Undaunted, the Commentariat soon became awash with every tweet, text and second-hand account of "revolution" coming from inside the Islamic Republic. Any week, day, even minute, the regime was bound to crumble. Right?

Not quite. Unlike the Shah and his father before him, the current Iranian regime -- bloated, corrupt and incompetent as it most assuredly is -- still enjoys the capital of perhaps the 20th Century's most popular revolution. At its height, the revolution of 1978 and 1979 accounted for nearly 10% of the Iranian population. Dozens of cities were consumed by riots, marches and demonstrations on an almost daily basis. The Shah could read the writing on the wall, and more importantly, knew how to count. The people no longer required his services.

The Mousavites simply don't have those numbers -- yet. This doesn't make them wrong, it simply makes them the minority. Any genuine revolution, so as not to be confused as counter-revolutionary, will require the support of the country's mostly silent majority. Ayatollah Khomeini didn't emerge at random as the figurehead of national revolt in 1979. His name was not drawn from a hat, nor was he nominated for his intimidating scowl. Much like the demonstrators and dissidents of today, he and his fellow travelers cut their teeth over a decade prior resisting the Shah's efforts to secularize the country. Today's reformists are green in more than color alone, and a great deal of work remains to be done.

But that work will only be more arduous and daunting with the gushing and premature support of western media and elites. Like any revolutionary regime, Tehran has gladly embraced the words and rhetoric of external actors and used them as evidence of yet another plot by outsiders to interfere in Iranian affairs.

And while this western hubris clearly affects the rhetoric inside Iran, it likewise impacts behavior outside of it. The Obama administration -- although insistent that engagement remains its priority -- has been left to scramble and account for its apparent desire to negotiate with a regime that arbitrarily brutalizes and incarcerates its own citizenry. As Time's Joe Klein recently put it, the administration's "body language has changed."

But Iranian reformists have befuddled the West on more than one occasion. The 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami stalled the Clinton administration's efforts to prosecute Iran for its destabilizing terrorist activities in the Middle East, and gave several European governments a green light to invest in Iran, forgoing sanctions and containment. Isolating and affecting Iranian behavior took a backseat to "critical dialogue" and a "dialogue of civilizations."

Once again, large and looming geopolitical questions -- such as Iranian nuclear proliferation, regional cooperation in Iraq and Palestinian statehood -- are in danger of stalling or failing entirely due to yet another western misreading of Iranian factionalism.

Let's hope President Obama and his international counterparts can see past such revolutionary hyperbole. A genuine reform movement in Iran will likely take years, if not decades, to foment and prosper. The courageous youth in green may yet win the day, whenever that day comes. What's blossoming in the Islamic Republic marks a change in public acceptance of the Supreme Leader, and will undoubtedly mold the leaders and reformers of the future. The young woman tear gassed today may be the next Gandhi, King, or yes, Khomeini. A page has no doubt been turned in Iran's national history.

All of this is terribly exciting. It's also out of our control, and that's a good thing. History often needs the proper room to breathe, not the breathless instigation of a hubristic few.

Let these "greens" grow on their own.