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On Iran, the Power of Obama's Silence

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"Help us." 
That was a comment, translated from Farsi, that was posted on the blog that I manage for the National
Iranian American Council
yesterday.  It came from a reader in Tehran,
imploring that someone in the West do something to stop what he or she calls
"a military government" being set up in Iran. 

For those watching intently for any bit of information they can grasp, it is a painful waiting game.  Even for those of us who are relatively well connected to Iranians--either through friends or family--it is difficult to find out any really conclusive news.  The mainstream media has largely taken the weekend off from this story--due in part to the government's suppression and intimidation of journalists--leaving the heavy lifting to new media and the blogosphere (which has performed amazingly well over the past 48 hours).  And it is most likely that our government doesn't have much more information that the rest of us, as illustrated by the relative silence coming from the White House and the State Department on the events of the weekend. 

Though Obama, Biden, Clinton and Gibbs have all gone on record with brief statements about the election, they have been extremely prudent, preferring to "monitor the situation" and "wait and see"--a stark contrast to some of their predecessors, who jumped on every opportunity to call for uprisings in the Middle East.  In a remarkable display of message restraint, public pronouncements coming out of the White House have made no mention of anything that could even remotely be seen as trying to influence the outcome of the weekend's events. 

Given Iran's well-known allergy to foreign meddling--and the hardliners' adept ability to justify their harsh repression by blaming alleged foreign plots--the Obama administration is doing exactly the right thing.  Just as the absolute worst thing the US government could have done in the days leading up to the elections was impose new sanctions to "cripple" Iran's economy,  the worst thing the administration could do now is take sides in the political infighting before knowing that its help would actually be welcome.

Of course, there are some who view this weekend's events as an opportunity for the US to support a particular Iranian faction loudly and clearly; Indiana Republican Mike Pence said

that he hopes President Obama will throw his support behind Mousavi by the end
of the day.  But these people are playing with dynamite.  At the
moment, lectures on democracy and Jeffersonian diatribes against tyranny are
the last thing the Iranian people need.  At best, such grandstanding would
give the hardliners in Iran a reason to paint the reformist camp as a stooge of
the West; at worst, it could incite the crowds even more and risk blowing the
top off an already tumultuous situation.  

Before we Americans come rushing onto the scene with an offer of help for the process of democratization in Iran, we need to be certain that the parties on the ground actually welcome our involvement, and that it won't in fact do more harm than good. 

Human rights defenders in Iran are always the first to speak up in support of greater transparency and political openness in the Iranian system.  Their commitment to their cause is beyond measure, and the events over the next few days will determine just how much progress they have been able to make.  But these brave activists have also made it abundantly clear to policymakers in the West that we have to be very careful about how we get involved in the affairs of their country. 

For now, the Obama administration is just taking a step back and assessing the situation, and rightly so--at the moment, the only certainty in this entire ordeal is that the more accurate information everyone has, the better.  But the Obama administration is also making it perfectly clear that, regardless of the outcome of the next few days, they are committed to engage in direct diplomacy with the Iranian government. 

At this point, that's the best we, as Americans, can do.