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US-IRAN: “Obama Effect” Versus “Freedom Agenda”

Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Jun 28 2009 (IPS) - Two weeks after allegations of fraud in Iran’s presidential elections triggered massive and instantly-iconic protests, partisans here of President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, are debating whose policies deserve more credit for encouraging the Iranian mobilisation.

Experts caution against giving either man too much of the credit for the so-called “green wave” that formed around moderate presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi.

Many suggest that the determination in Washington to see U.S. presidents as prime movers in Iranian politics is merely a sign of narcissism, and note that Iran has a history of reformist political mobilisations – such as that which brought former president Mohammed Khatami to power – that predate either Bush’s or Obama’s time in office.

But as is often the case in Washington, the argument about what brought Iran to this point has more to do with the future than the past, and it is largely rooted in differing views of how to proceed going forward rather than a strict concern for historical accuracy.

Those inclined to credit an “Obama effect” tend to argue that Obama’s strategy of conciliation and engagement with the Muslim world – on display in his high-profile speech in Cairo earlier this month – is most likely both to further U.S. interests and ultimately to foster democratic reform in the Middle East.

They argue that a confrontational strategy based around the overthrow of hostile governments is more likely to shut down democratic reform than to promote it, by allowing authoritarian regimes to use nationalist sentiment to solidify their power.


Those who credit Bush’s “freedom agenda” for the recent developments in Iran suggest that the former president’s preference for “hard power” and regime change as tools of democracy promotion must remain at the centre of U.S. foreign policy.

Many of the prominent commentators in the second camp are themselves former Bush administration officials.

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, for instance, argues that “George Bush’s Freedom Agenda planted seeds that have started to grow in the Middle East”.

One motive for the protesters, Fleischer told the Washington Post, was “because Shiites in particular see Shiites in Iraq having more freedoms than they do. Bush’s tough policies have helped give rise to the reformists and I think we’re witnessing that today”.

Although few Iran experts feel that the Iraqi example played a major role in the protests – noting, for instance, that Iraq has barely been mentioned by Iranian reformist leaders – others on the right have echoed the idea of Iraqi inspiration.

The notion that a democratic and pro-Western Iraq would trigger a wave of democratisation throughout the Middle East was, of course, one of the original promises of war supporters. The neoconservative-aligned Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, for instance, wrote in a Feb. 2003 Wall Street Journal op-ed that a liberated Iraq would have a “contagion effect” on neighbouring Iran.

But more than rehabilitating Bush himself, or even the Iraq war as a whole, those who take the Iran protests as a vindication of his policies seek to rehabilitate an entire foreign policy mindset that was widely seen as discredited in the wake of Obama’s accession to the presidency.

On Friday, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson – who, as Bush’s chief speechwriter, was the main drafter of the 2005 second inaugural address that is considered the classic statement of the “freedom agenda” – argued that “spring is returning” in the Middle East.

It would be an overstatement to say that Obama has renounced democracy promotion as a goal.

His Cairo speech of Jun. 4 argued that “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose… are not just American ideas, they are human rights… and that is why we will support them everywhere”.

But the Obama administration has acted more cautiously, partly out of a belief that aggressive democracy promotion, particularly in the Middle East, is likely to backfire.

This view was on display during the Iran protests, as Obama refused to take the aggressive line against the Iranian regime that many right-wing commentators were calling for, arguing that such a stance would risk delegitimising the protesters.

More broadly, Obama has resisted making regime change the central goal of democracy promotion efforts, and using “hard power” measures such as military strikes and sanctions as its primary tools.

Rather, his foreign policy has operated on the assumption that engaging with repressive regimes, and offering assurances that the U.S. is not plotting regime change against them, is likely to open up political space for internal dissent and reform.

Obama’s use of the Iranian state’s formal name, the Islamic Republic of Iran, was widely seen as a gesture intended to signal U.S. respect and good intentions.

Many commentators have argued that this strategy bears at least some responsibility for Moussavi’s surge of support in the last days of the campaign.

On Thursday, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair denied that it was “hubris” for the U.S. to think that Obama had an impact on recent events in Iran. Blair said that Obama’s election was viewed from the outside as a “revolutionary change”, and that his Cairo speech “has had a really, really significant impact” on public opinion in the Middle East.

Obama’s approach offers a marked tonal shift from that of his predecessor. Bush’s freedom agenda was rooted in a more confrontational mentality that held that “evil” powers were unlikely to reform, and that the U.S. should support regime change, backed when necessary by military force, as the only long-term solution.

Regarding Iran, which Bush referred to as part of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea in 2002, neoconservatives and their allies continue to maintain that the only satisfactory solution is the outright overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

On Friday, for instance, Bush’s former U.N. ambassador John Bolton wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Obama’s policy, and that of the United States, should be the overthrow of the Islamic revolution of 1979”.

Although Bolton argued that a policy of regime change would be supported by the Iranian people, Moussavi and most of his supporters have gone out of their way to emphasise their allegiance to the Islamic Republic and their desire to return to the spirit of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

On Saturday, Moussavi said that the purpose of his presidential candidacy was “to re-invite to the Islamic Revolution as it had to be, and the Islamic Republic as it has to be”. He called for “a reform by return to the pure principles of revolution”.

Regardless of the protesters’ intentions, their demonstrations have already spurred calls in Washington for more aggressive democracy promotion measures.

On Thursday, three senators with strong ties to neoconservatives – John McCain of Arizona, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – unveiled legislation that would increase funding for U.S.-produced radio programming within Iran, as well as for technology that would hamper Iran’s ability to restrict telecommunications within the country.

Ironically, some experts allege that the most forceful U.S. advocates of democracy promotion in Iran are guilty of ignoring the voices of the Iranian people.

Stepping up U.S. democracy assistance programs in Iran “would be precisely the wrong move – not because it would compromise the climate for nuclear negotiations, but because Iran’s own activists have consistently rejected such funding”, wrote Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution on the website of Foreign Policy magazine. “They don’t want it, and elections-related news such as the massive reformist vote monitoring effort suggests they don’t need it.”

 
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