It's become banal to argue we substantially overestimate our ability to influence the Middle East. But media commentary about the Iranian protests takes the usual unreality to a whole new level of insanity. Watching commentators fuss about whether Michael Jackson's death has "killed" the protest movement, pen dripping odes to Twitter, or argue that Barack Obama must throw our whole weight behind the protesters is enough to make one wonder if a graduate degree in navel-gazing is a prerequisite for going into opinion journalism.
Simply put: the ongoing Iranian protests are not about America. The center of gravity in the latest Iranian protests, like many others in authoritarian nations, is the regime's elites and the security services. Entrenched military juntas must expend an enormous amount of energy to maintain their control, necessitating the buildup of a fearsome -- yet clumsy and brittle -- apparatus of power. "People power" doesn't directly overthrow regimes, but it can sow division and rebellion among the soldiers and bureaucrats that help the Supreme Leader, El Presidente, and the Grand Poobah stay in power. Dictators fall when normally reliable lackeys wimp out, secret police refuse to lock up dissidents, and tank guns get pointed in the "wrong" direction.
Of course, knowing that the world is watching is undoubtedly a helpful mobilization tool for protesters. Foreign media coverage may even unnerve some regime elites uncomfortable with seeing evidence of their brutality splashed across the front page. But foreign attention didn't make the protests and lack of attention won't break them. The young men and women risking their lives on the streets of Tehran are targeting the Iranian people, not the CNN Situation Room.
Contrary to public belief, Twitter was not crucial in organizing the protests. As activist Al Giordano noted, the Iranians are mainly employing classic political organizing techniques that do not differ substantially from the means employed to overthrow the Shah in 1979. Perhaps the middle-aged tyrants in charge of the security services see echoes of their own youthful rebellion in the protesting students, redoubling their commitment to crush the protests before they truly threaten the dictatorship.
Perhaps the most ridiculous media meme is the idea that the "Obama Effect" is at work in Tehran. While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad certainly suffered from the lack of a bogeyman to blame for his reckless foreign policies, internal repression, and mismanagement of the economy, there is little evidence that Obama's popularity was decisive in an election that revolved (like all elections) around local political issues.
The narcissistic way that the pundit class thinks about Iran is eerily similar to the delusions fostered by reading an exclusive diet of celebrity gossip magazines and TMZ.com. Many people form a false intimacy with the celebrities whom they read about and make "Angelina" and "Megan" central characters in their own lives. The media's fixation on placing America at the center of Iran's domestic drama is the political equivalent of convincing yourself that you're on a first-name basis with Megan Fox just because you follow her Twitter feed.
But while trying to talk to Ms. Fox in person may result in you getting roughed up by a steroid-abusing Sunset Strip bouncer, acting on the belief that America can and should influence events on the ground in Iran will get a lot of people killed and gravely harm our regional interests.