Analysis: Toothless watchdogs of democracy

The West just abandoned the protesters to their fate.

Obama cool angle 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama cool angle 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Twelve days after the elections in Iran, the revolution appears to be faltering, though the regime's clampdown on the news makes it difficult to know what is really happening. The number of victims is probably much higher than the official figure. The part played by defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the latest developments is still unclear. What is beyond dispute is that while the events were unfolding, the world looked on and did precisely nothing. The saner elements - that is, excluding Venezuela, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas - rooted for the protesters and hoped for a new regime more receptive to the calls for freedom and perhaps more democratic; a regime turning away from the aggressive stand of the ayatollahs and accepting to review its nuclear policy. However, while brave men and women fought a hopeless battle in the streets of Teheran against the brutal repression of the security forces of the fanatical regime, no one lifted a finger to help them. The fact is that what looked like a spontaneous uprising took experts and commentators by surprise. It had been generally accepted that the election would be close, and that should Mousavi win, he would devote his efforts to the economy while toeing the Khatami line - in other words, pretend to be a little more liberal than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without departing from his predecessor's policies of exporting the Islamic Revolution and developing his country nuclear potential. The actual results - an estimated 57 percent of the vote for Mousavi according to the first reports - came as a shock, perhaps to Mousavi as well. The more so since Ahmadinejad's partisans did everything they could to thwart his opponents: Voters were prevented from entering polling stations, vote bulletins disappeared... The government decided to put a stop to what looked more and more to be a humiliating defeat and published figures "demonstrating" Ahmadinejad's clear victory, with nearly two-thirds of the votes, against Mousavi's third and less than 3% for the other two candidates. The proportions remained constant even in the strongholds of Ahmadinejad's three opponents, a manifest impossibility. The brazen nature of the fraud was probably what lit the fuse. Mousavi had been one of the leaders of the uprising against the shah in 1979; he was head of the government between 1981 and 1989, that is, during the long and bloody war with Iraq, and was known for his "revolutionary fervor" in the service of the ayatollahs. He suddenly found himself at the spearhead of a popular movement calling for reforms and fighting the very regime he had helped establish. It is unclear whether he took the initiative or was carried away. He may have been in favor of greater liberalization, but he was not ready to go all the way. And the West? The West could not get its act together. The situation in Iran was frontpage news everywhere, and the reports were sympathetic to the demonstrators, but that was all. The reaction of the US, torchbearer of democracy, was strangely muted. Barack Obama at first compared Mousavi to Ahmadinejad, and it took a week of bloody protests, intense pressure from Republicans and the incomprehension of most political commentators at home and in the world to get him to condemn the brutal repression. The American president had not yet grasped what had happened. Hadn't he sent Supreme Leader Ali Khamenai a message calling for a dialogue a few weeks before the elections? He did not want to jeopardize his stated objective of opening a dialogue with the ayatollahs by giving his public support to the demonstrators. Worse was to come. On Wednesday the US announced it was sending back its ambassador to Syria - an ambassador who had been recalled four years ago in protest against the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the fact that Damascus was openly supporting Iran and terror. And yet Syria had not moved an inch from its position and its Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warmly endorsed the Iranian regime and said those who rebelled against it would fail. This was not the message the people risking their lives in the streets of Teheran wanted to hear from the greatest Western democracy. Europe protested more vigorously, but that was all. Great Britain risked a diplomatic confrontation with Iran; Nicolas Sarkozy condemned Teheran, but on Monday gave a warm reception to one of the staunchest supporters of Iran, the visiting emir of Qatar, who did not hesitate to defend that country's regime in a speech he gave to French political leaders while a guest of the mayor of Paris. The West just abandoned the protesters to their fate. Political and economic interests prevailed. After all, it was supposed that the Iranian regime would triumph and the protesters would be defeated. It was therefore of paramount importance to keep communications open with the ayatollahs and not to hamper the increasing flow of goods and technology between Europe and the huge Iranian market; best to be prudent and let the Iranians sort their own problems. And what of the people in the streets fighting well-trained and superiorly equipped forces? Wouldn't they have wanted - expected, perhaps - that the West would take a stronger stand? It has been suggested that had the US openly supported the dissidents, it would have been taken by the ayatollahs as proof that the Great Satan was behind the protests. It seems more likely that the people would have welcomed a strong condemnation and a call for new elections, or at least for an international probe of the election results. Well, that did not happen and one can only conclude that neither the US nor Europe is willing to tackle the situation head on. For all their talk about democracy and human rights, they are not ready to act. One can only remember the Hungarian revolution crushed by Soviet tanks in 1956 while the West looked on, and ponder what is going on today in North Korea. This is a lesson for extremist and dictatorial regimes. The West is not ready to fight for what it believes. The watchdog of democracy is toothless. Arab countries, which go in fear of the aggressive policy of Iran, are silent. A few commentators did express satisfaction with the turmoil in Iran and hope that it would cool the ayatollahs' ardor for exporting the Islamic revolution. However, the Arab leaders are mute. They do not wish the revolt born in the streets of Teheran to reach their shores and perhaps topple them. The writer, a former ambassador to Egypt, is a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.