Middle Israel: Iran's upheaval in context

Obama's refusal to cancel the planned dialogue with post-riot Teheran makes as much sense as Khamenei's insistence that the election wasn't stolen

0307-amotz (photo credit: hungarla.com)
(photo credit: hungarla.com)
The upheaval in Iran may have ended and, conversely, it may have hardly begun, but from what we have seen so far, several mostly somber conclusions already arise. The first is that the protesters lack firearms. This is not Budapest in the fall of 1956, when ordinary Hungarians sniped to death - often with hunting rifles - some 1,500 Soviet troops, who in turn killed 20,000 rebels (according to Nikita Khrushchev's biographer William Taubman). In Teheran this month, by the most generous estimates, there were hardly 200 fatalities in all, and the real number is apparently lower. Teheran '09 also saw nothing quite like the massacre at Budapest's Parliament Square, where Hungarian police - prior to the Red Army's arrival - mowed down 100 demonstrators, who then stormed the Communist Party headquarters, grabbed secret service officers, lynched them and hanged them from lampposts. The Iranian revolt has so far seen no large-scale exchanges of fire of the sort that accompanied freedom's arrival in Bucharest in '89, nor a guerrilla effort of the sort that carried Fidel Castro to Havana in '59. THE SECOND conclusion is that the Iranian rebels, unlike the Hungarians of '56, but much like the Czechs of '68, are controlling their rhetoric and limiting their goals. In the Budapest of '56 the rebel leaders banged their heads not only into the Red Army's armor but also into the Soviet covenant's tablets, by announcing plans to leave the Warsaw Pact and hold free elections. The Czechs, by contrast, only said they wanted "communism with a human face," by which they meant more freedom of speech, association and artistic expression. Eventually, when Warsaw Pact tanks rumbled into Prague, the rebel leaders ordered their followers not to fight. From what we have heard so far, this is also the Iranian rebels' attitude. The focus on the cleanliness of an election which ended up a farce is no reason to forget it was a tragedy in the first place. What kind of an election is it where a bunch of clerics screen the candidates? Yet for now the opposition does not attack the Islamist government's ideas, which they at least nominally share, only their manner, which they find corrupt. The Western assumption, that the masses who took to the streets are totally fed up with Islamism, is logical and will hopefully be validated, but just how that will be delivered by the likes of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mir-Hossein Mousavi remains unclear; Khomeinism is to these guys what moon-walking was to Michael Jackson. Third, the rebels also lack an institutional backbone. Unlike the Poles of 1981, they have nothing like Solidarity, a grassroots movement with a genuine following. And unlike the Polish freedom movement, which produced the electoral victory of June '89 that touched off the collapse of communism, today's Iranians also lack an equivalent of the Catholic Church, whose local leadership and papal inspiration helped the revolution spark, last and prevail. And they certainly lack charismatic leaders and moral authorities like John Paul II, Lech Walesa or Andrei Sakharov. Yet all these pale compared with the Iranian upheaval's most potent drawback: Barack Obama. THOUGH BURDENED by no Cold War, the current White House seems inspired by Dwight Eisenhower's abandonment of Hungary's freedom fighters to tyranny's devices. Obama's foreign policy, a mere few months after its unveiling, is a shambles. First came the North Korean blast, which made a joke of his world-without-nukes vision, and then came the Arab disregard of Obama's rhetoric in Cairo in praise of women's rights and self-fulfillment, and now the Iranian turmoil has altogether made a laughingstock of his much-heralded determination to talk to the mullahs. How will he do that? Will he go himself to meet Ali Khamenei, or will he send Hillary to meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? And how does one start such a conversation? Maybe something like: "My presidential campaign left me broke, how did yours end up?" Or will Hillary have the guts to say what Dorothy Thompson asked Stalin at a cocktail party in Moscow in the 1930s: "How much longer will you be killing people?" (To which Stalin answered: "As long as will be necessary.") It's not too late for Obama to understand the depth of the diplomatic naivete he has so far displayed, and change course, otherwise his stubborn desire to dialogue with Khamenei et al. will look like the flip side of the ayatollahs' insistence that their election was fair. Yes, the drawbacks in the Iranian situation are numerous. The rebels lack leaders, ideas and ammunition, but Ahmadinejad has emerged as a fraud, a sour loser who wasted a precious half decade in power provoking not only the outer world from Canada to Bahrain, but the Iranian nation itself. This is what the masses who swamped Teheran effectively shouted. Evidently, they no longer care. They may or may not be concerned about Holocaust denial, Lebanese intrigues, Gazan missiles, persecution of gays or the rest of the causes that have been dear to Ahmadinejad; what they all want is what this regime has so patently failed to deliver - jobs, goods, price stability and a better chance to get ahead in life. The speedy announcement of a landslide made it plain that the regime had what to hide, and that it had lost what little respect it still had for its own people's intelligence, rights and power. Some in the West always believed that sooner or later the refusal to be bullied, abused and robbed makes people rebel. Such Westerners, even if they can't literally interfere on behalf of the abused, at least make a point of keeping abusers at arm's length. That is what George W. Bush did, to the scorn of self-styled pragmatists from the same school that used to question the practicality of protesting Soviet oppression while there was so much business to do there peacefully. Well now the Iranian people have spoken, and the simplest demand to which they would surely all subscribe would be: "Mr. Obama: Don't dialogue with that man." And really, what American leader in his right mind can sit and talk with this small-time vote thief? Even if Obama can afford such a dialogue electorally (which also remains to be seen), he certainly can't afford it morally. Obama's eagerness to brandish a diplomacy markedly different from his predecessor's was hasty, naive, unfair and dangerous. The least he can now do is suspend the dialogue with Iran until its leadership is proven agreeable to its people. Such an announcement would not only shorten the distance between the mullahs and history's dustbin, it would send a clear message to the brave Iranians who took to the streets in their quest for freedom: "America is with you." www.MiddleIsrael.com