CNN.com columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. is the latest to join the chorus of voices calling on President Obama to get tougher with the Iranian government. While tempting, the CNN commentator's words fail to consider the legacy of 25 years of U.S. intervention against Iranian democracy.
In a column published on Friday, June 19th, Navarrette argues:
The president needs to say to the world that we're choosing sides in this conflict and that we're rooting for the protesters against the people who are trying to beat them into submission and suppress the tides of progress.
Navarrette gives in to a temptation that many of us must feel. There is an instinctive sense of solidarity that comes when one watches footage of the brave Iranian voters who dare to challenge a repressive regime. If we as individual Americans feel this way, then why shouldn't our government offer an official statement condemning the Iranian government? Iran's leaders, after all, are hurting their own people.
This temptation becomes a bit more complicated once one considers the long years from 1953 to 1979. Many American commentators begin their reflections on Iran with the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini into power. But it was the 25 years of U.S. foreign policy prior to 1979 that must be considered in adopting the right response.
As veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer once documented, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the CIA to overthrow Iran's first Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953. Kinzer's book, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, recounts Mossadegh's rise to power on a wave of Iranian democratic activism opposed to Britain's control of Iranian oil.
It was a period of intense decolonization around the world, as independence movements asserted themselves against British colonial rule. Indeed, the world's largest democracy was born just a few years earlier, when Mahatma Gandhi and his peers pushed the British off the Indian subcontinent.
In Iran, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was yet another example of Britain's many colonial tentacles. This specific tentacle was cut by Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh when he nationalized Britain's oil holdings shortly after being elected. Because of this, and because his governing coalition included a few communists, the CIA launched Operation Ajax and replaced Iran's fragile democracy with a dictatorship.
For the next 25 years, the U.S. backed the Shah of Iran, a sometimes brutal dictator. The Shah's Savak secret police arrested, tortured, and killed democratic opponents of the regime. Indeed, one could draw a nauseous parallel between some of the Shah's actions and current events in Tehran. It seems that dictators, secular or Islamic, use the same brutal toolkit for maintaining power.
Given this history, Navarrette's unqualified sense of mission in his CNN.com column seems out of place:
[Obama] needs to abandon his neutrality and express clearly the principles that our country represents, the secret ingredient in our sauce, if you will -- what it is that makes us tick and why we are moved by what we see happening in Iran.
After all, a cornerstone of the current Islamic Republic of Iran's ideology is its resistance to perceived U.S. dominance. If the White House were to explicitly condemn the current Iranian regime, it would be easy for that regime to reference our history of controlling Iranian politics. Forceful rhetoric from the U.S. could be used to delegitimize the very democracy activists we support.
But this subtle nuance is lost for some American commentators, primarily because the topic of U.S. intervention in Iran is still somewhat taboo in some corners of U.S. political discourse. This is finally starting to change, as U.S. Senator John Kerry's recent opinion piece in the New York Times demonstrates:
The last thing we should do is give Mr. Ahmadinejad an opportunity to evoke the 1953 American-sponsored coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power. Doing so would only allow him to cast himself as a modern-day Mossadegh, standing up for principle against a Western puppet.
But there is still an aversion among many American commentators to discussing the hard facts, and Navarrette's CNN column reflects this. This is especially surprising, given that Navarrette is no journalism novice. He is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board and a nationally syndicated columnist.
Thankfully, Obama is adopting a more calibrated line. His statement this weekend included the following:
We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people....If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion...right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples' belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.
With the phrase "bearing witness," Obama undermines any Iranian claims that the U.S. is overtly intervening. By saying that the Iranian government it must "govern through consent," Obama is undermining any claims that the U.S. seeks to overthrow the Iranian regime. As a result, the White House is making it harder for Iran's current leadership to refocus attention on our own troubled history in the region.