Obama Must Speak Up Quickly or Iran Can Become His Rwanda

07/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Sedaei Senior Director of Iran Programs at Nonviolence International, Documentary Producer

I was sitting in the control room of the Farsi Voice of America TV Channel in Washington (broadcast in Iran) on Saturday before a scheduled appearance to help cover the developing incidents in Iran when one of the people there let me know that the regime had arrested the daughter of Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of Expediency Council, the body that selects and can remove the Supreme Leader. Then we heard the report of the regime opening water hoses on people and shooting people with plastic and real bullets, and a video came in of a woman getting killed that was so graphic that Voice of America refused to broadcast it.

What everyone needs to understand is that what ignited the protests may have been Ahmadinejad's hijacking of the election, but what has been fueling the protests and disobedience by millions of Iranians goes much deeper than this election. Iranians have been repressed for thirty years under the third most brutal theocracy--after the Taliban and Saudi Arabia--ever to rule on earth. But throughout this time, they always believed that although the regime curbed their most basic rights and the most powerful leader in Iran was unelected, they at least had a little bit of control by having at least a few options to choose from for president every four years. But in this election, they saw that last common trait between Iran and liberal democracies taken away and Iran turn from an Islamic Republic to an Islamic fascist state.

Khomeini, Khamenei and other members of Velayate Faghih never truly believed in the value of democracy and saw it more as a threat to weaken, rather than a virtue to strengthen. The establishment of the Guardian Council of clerics to Islamize the Iranian democracy by running candidates for all offices through a Quranic filter was one way of weakening the Iranian democracy. But taking the vote away all together by manufacturing sets of numbers and putting them out as election results two hours after the polls closed was over the top.

As these events developed, President Obama's initial reaction was quite hands off. And even after hundreds of thousands of people began coming out last Saturday and Sunday, and the regime used violence against nonviolent demonstrators, President Obama only made a passing statement about not being able to remain silent, only to fall into silence right afterwards.

All of those actions may have been understandable and even justifiable based on the circumstances immediately following the election. Nonetheless, as I have been following the story and advising activists in Iran throughout the past week, I have seen how quickly the events are developing (and deteriorating) in the streets of Tehran and other provinces. What is critical for the Obama administration to understand is that their one-week-old hands off approach no longer works. Since Ayatollah Khamenei's speech last Friday, the regime has significantly increased violent repression, and I heard from one source a few hours ago that people have spotted at least one tank on a Tehran street. Yes, a tank.

This is no longer a "dispute" to be worked out by the "people of Iran." The Iranian regime may very well be on the brink of committing a mass killing of protesters. What is happening in Iran now is a not an uprising, but a revolution that is shaking the most fundamental pillars of the Islamic Republic and is ending the Islamic Republic as we know it.

In the current conditions, President Obama has two choices: First, he can continue to do what he has been doing--"monitoring" the situation or making passing and softly critical statements on the behavior of the Iranian regime--in order to not offend Ahmadinejad, with whom he hopes to do diplomacy. Diplomacy should certainly be every president's first instinct, and he should avoid burning bridges as much as possible. What an equally legitimate concern is the cost of maintaining that bridge. Even Obama doesn't believe diplomacy is without limits; his policy on Osama bin Laden continues to be based on the goal of capturing and killing him. So there is a line beyond which Obama not only can safely take sides in the internal conflicts of other countries, but at the leader of the free world, he has the responsibility to in order to stop the bloodshed.

The situation in Iran passed that line two days ago. Ahmadinejad no longer has the kind of viability and legitimacy that warrants this level of silence in the face of horrific human rights crimes and killings on the streets. Keeping silent will lead to a future regime in Iran that will have to be anti-American by definition; no Iranian will forget the American silence as they bled and fought for their freedom.

The alternative is for President Obama to acknowledge what is happening in Iran with a sense of foresight and when it matters: right now. Iran is in the middle of a revolution. Accordingly, President Obama needs to put out a statement quickly similar to President Clinton's on Milosevic. It can go something like this: "Iran: the United States wants to have a mutually respectful relationship with you, but not at the expense of its most cherished human rights values and ideals. If you use the power of your military to mass murder nonviolent protesters, the United States will reserve the right to use all of its power and leverage to defend the shedding of innocent blood."

It has become conventional wisdom to think that doing so will turn the Iranians against the United States, but that is simply not true! The majority of Iranians do not consider the army or revolutionary guard as forces that are there to defend them, but as tools the Supreme Leader uses to oppress them. President Obama cannot apply the assumptions he has about the sentiments of people in democratic countries toward their government and military institutions to nondemocratic countries.

This is a critical time not only in the history of Iran, but in President Obama's presidency. He can take swift action and make it clear that America will not accept an Iranian slaughter, or he can stay quiet as a brutal regime kills (as Bill Clinton did on Rwanda), sit this revolution out, pretend it's not happening, watch a new anti-American regime come to power, and say goodbye to the possibility of normalizing relations with Iran under his presidency.

UPDATE: My interview on this topic on CNN from Monday, June 22, 2008: