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by SETAREH SABETY in Nice, France

14 Oct 2009 18:1710 Comments

Obama's Lost Opportunity

[ comment ] Events in Iran have unraveled like a nightmare for many of us Iranians. First, the presidential election, which seemed to hold some promise of change and bloodless reform to the Islamic Republic, was stolen.

Then the protesters who poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities in the millions were brutally beaten, arrested and killed. Once arrested, many of these peaceful reform-seeking protesters were tortured and raped. More died, and even more were forced to confess in Stalin-esque show trials that made us all cringe as we watched and thought: How much humiliation and pain can make a grown man forsake his dignity and beliefs?

Then Ali Akbar Agha Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been an outspoken supporter and defender of our popular reformist candidate and Green movement, crawled back into his pragmatic shell.

Then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York and addressed an empty UN General Assembly -- not even the Lebanese delegation sat through his speech. The Palestinians, in what seemed like a poetic act, left only their beautiful hejab-less women to sit and watch. Yet, ever the impudent politician, Ahmadinejad stood his ground and went back to Iran with a triumphant air, thanks to the sudden 'revelation' that another nuclear plant was in progress in Qom. Intelligence that the US had possessed as long as two years ago, but the Iranians had chosen to reveal at this point, saved Ahmadinejad by switching media and world attention from the plight of Iranian democrats to the question of Iran's nuclear ambitions and the capability and the merits of Obama's doctrine of diplomacy.

Then there was the Geneva 5 + 1 talks, which all sides claimed as a victory. America and its allies claimed that Iran had conceded on two contentious points by allowing a third party to enrich its uranium and the IAEA to inspect its nuclear facilities. The Americans succeeded in sitting face to face with Iranians in an official meeting for the first time since the Islamic Republic's founding more than thirty years ago. Obama, under attack for his health care plan and losing his popularity in the polls at home, scored his first foreign policy triumph. His election mantra, that 'we can negotiate with the enemy,' seemed to have been vindicated when he appeared that evening to brief the world on what he claimed was a 'constructive start' to negotiations.

Obama's overture to Iran and his abandonment of an obsolete plan for a missile shield in Europe to lure the Russians to his side bore him immediate fruit in the form of a Noble Prize. The Norwegians seemed to be so excited about Obama's contrast with Bush that they gave him the prize for having good intentions and for not being a warmonger with a low IQ.

In a year, when we had the biggest uprising against this feared and archaic theocracy, this regime that stones women and hangs children, we had to watch the man who did the most to legitimize Ahmadinejad win the Noble Prize for Peace!

Why do I blame Obama, whom I voted for, whom I fell in love with the day he gave his speech at the Democratic convention five years ago? Because he lost a very big opportunity in Iran.

For thirty years those of us who abhorred this theocracy thought that we shared an enemy with America. For thirty years we were told by both Democratic and Republican administrations that if we rose for change in Iran they would watch our back. For thirty years we thought that the democracies of the world were on our side. We never thought that three million people would pour into the streets of Tehran to demand justice and freedom and that the American president would not back us passionately and vehemently. We never thought that once we rose the president of America would extend a hand to the men responsible for the arrests, tortures, rapes and deaths of our people who asked for nothing more than to have their votes counted.

Yes, many of us are still shocked. Many of us feel betrayed.

Obama's election inspired hope in us like it did for Americans and people all over the world. He made us believe that we too could change things by simply voting. Little did we know that even when we did vote, even when we braved bullets and prisons, we still would not get his backing.

Now the so-called 'experts' say that he did the right thing, and in fact what else could he do? Obama cannot wait for things to change in Iran forever. Others claim that states act in their own interests and cannot be expected to act altruistically. But pray tell me what in backing a movement for democracy and opening to the West is not in the interest of the US and its allies? Unless you are a conspiracy theorist like my aunt who thinks Americans and Israelis are in cahoots with Ahmadinejad, you should answer my question with a resounding "NOTHING!"

There is also another line of argument which claims that if America and Europe are seen as supporting the protesters they will be accused of meddling. They cannot understand that Iranians have moved on from their anti-Americanism. Iranians do not buy and are fed up with Ahmadinejad's scapegoating of the West and America. We have moved far beyond what the analysts call our 'complicated history' with the U.S. We are being killed, tortured and raped by our own people and are no longer suspicious of imperialistic aspirations of Obama's America. We are a sophisticated people capable of understanding historic context and political nuance! Don't confuse Iran with Afghanistan or Iraq.

We have a very educated population. Sixty percent of our university students are women. We have twenty-four million internet users and sixty thousand bloggers in Iran. A majority of our people voted for change like Americans did with Obama.

The hatred for the Neo-Cons and the after-taste of eight years of Bush have made the Democrats and the left in the West very timid about opposing anyone who the Republicans opposed. In fact, the 'politically correct' West tends to think that the aspirations for freedom and liberal democracy are purely Western ideals lacking genuine popular support in other parts of the world. They see us as naïve natives who can't tell the difference between a leader who wants to help us and one who wants to bomb us. So they don't offer to help us! They think that Islamic extremism is more genuine and indigenous and that democratic liberalism is an imperialist import. Their anti-imperialism blinds them to atrocities committed by local bullies. They cannot fathom that we are sophisticated enough to want Western style democracy -- you know, the kind where you vote and they actually count the votes!

The incredibly quick-to-polarize ambiance of American politics will try to bury me with its ceaseless labeling. I will be called a Neo-con and a warmonger just for opposing Obama's naïve belief in the efficacy of negotiation with the Ahmadinejad regime. In the black and white halls of American public debate there is no room for someone who passionately supports Obama's health care bill but who vehemently opposes his doctrine of diplomacy with the usurping Iranian government. I will be treated like a right-wing Cuban exile crazy enough to want to change regimes at any cost. I respond to all this by saying that there is a long distance between not wanting a war with Iran and not wanting the US to negotiate with this illegitimate regime.

You do not have to be a wacky reactionary to want the world to show the regime in Iran outrage. Obama had a great opportunity to be both a hero and a pragmatist by backing the protesters. Only an Iran safe for her people will be safe for the world. He could have extended the Reformists his full support; he could have put at least symbolic pressure on Iran. Most of all he could have refused that hand that may have been extended to him openly but that was turned into a fist that came down on the heads of innocent youths who had the 'audacity to hope' but who were unlucky enough to do it in the wrong place!

I do not want my President, who made me cry with his words of justice and freedom, who made me think that the impossible was possible, to shake the hands of the murderer of my children. If the Noble Prize for Peace makes Obama carry one burden, it should be the burden of not abandoning a noble people who have already paid too high a price for the shortsightedness of American foreign policy.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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Setareh khaanoum:

You have 4 premises that are all wrong (with all due respect):

1. The U.S. cares about democracy in Iran (or in the ME for that matter): It does not. If it did, how come Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, UAE, etc., are not bastions of democracy?

2. What the U.S. administrations call U.S. national interests are truly U.S. national interests. They are not. They are the interests of multinational corporations that are protected by the U.S. military/intelligence establishment.

3. A U.S. president can make dramatic changes in the U.S. foreign policy. He cannot. Obama is constrained by the same parameters that GWB was, and all other presidents before him. It is nothing against him. I voted for him too. Obama is doing practically the same as GWB, save for some cosmetic changes!

4. U.S. can help Iranians achieve democracy. The U.S. is after its interests in (2). If a democratic government helps the U.S. advance those interests, fine. If not, the U.S. does not give a hoot.

I agree with you that a democratic Iran will be in the TRUE national interests of the U.S., but those are NOT the same as what the Administration pursues.

Iranian people can take care of the IRI without outside help. They overthrew the Shah who was supported by the U.S., and they will change the IRI that is not supported by anyone.

Mammad Izadian / October 15, 2009 6:38 AM

I wouldn't attempt to critique the sentiment in this article for I believe it is sincere, but I also do believe that sincere sense of frustration and desperation does, as these feelings tend to do, obscure the realities of the situation.

You say, "They cannot understand that Iranians have moved on from their anti-Americanism." unfortunately this is not a true statement, not because there hasn't been a significant shift in the views of America within the Iranian population but because it is impossible to ascribe such singular movements to large groups of individuals. It would be similar to saying the United States has moved passed George Bush because Obama won an election, the same elements which cheered Bush in 2004 exist in 2008, the relative proportion has just shifted. The same can be said of Iran, fewer today than previously are susceptible to anti-american demagoguery, but that doesn't mean there isn't a large portion that isn't or at the very least, looks negatively towards it. That's why I believe there is credence to the argument that statements towards the protesters by the US can only hurt them by isolating and drawing divisions within the movement. While statements by the US and the inevitable counter by the regime may only affect 5-10% of the populace, it is precisely that 5-10% the green movement needs, it is the tipping point by which it has the numbers and momentum. Again, I believe the frustration and desperation exhibited in the article is real and in need of a larger force to help prop it up through the long process that green revolution is and pressure and critique of the president is nothing but good for the process, unfortunately I do not believe Obama has actually had an opportunity yet to lose.

Patrick / October 15, 2009 7:34 AM

Patrick, you're right about many things. However, your 5-10% estimate for Iran- what do you base this on? To date, the only hard data we have is the World Public Opinion poll, and it portrays a significant majority with favorable views toward the political establishment, certainly more than 5-10%.

Setareh, your points are also well taken. However, for some reason you've left out Israel and the Zionist influences that effectively corral US foreign policy in the Middle East. Now you may think of this as mere IRI rhetoric, but I can assure you that it is not. It's reality.

Pirouz / October 15, 2009 9:39 AM

"Iran is not Iraq or Afghanistan."

That is exactly why the US has not been able to deal effectively with Iran these thirty years.

This latest blunder by Barack 'Diplomacy' Obama is only the most recent form of American policy on Iran that will backfire. Just as the hostage crisis was not handled well by the US, just as the US embargo did little to curb Iran's ascension in the region, just as backing Saddam in the war did not push the regime to collapse.

Obama cannot NOT talk to Iran, after all his preparations for it - the Persian New Year message, the "unclenched fist" overture, the dropping of preconditions, the talk of the ticking clock on the nuclear issue.

The American public, which watched Obama debate McCain about sitting at table with Bush's axis-of-evil archfoe, now finds the idea as natural as passing a healthcare bill. To pull out of talks would be impossible for Obama's carefully crafted foreign policy vision.

It is a misjudgement which can no longer be averted, but the good news is that it will not effect what is going on inside Iran. The internal politics of the Government versus the People will rage on as they did in 1978-1979.

At that time, when Carter blindly called Iran "an oasis of stability," he had no idea he'd forfeit his second term with that misjudgment.

In this case, Obama will see no backlash to his own presidency, but Iranians will remember him with about as much love as the architects of the 1953 Mossadeq coup.

Mani / October 15, 2009 10:20 AM

Obama is weak - and that is good for Iran.

Radical Guy / October 15, 2009 9:22 PM

Nice article. I just want to say, No one can give us the Democracy. We (Iranian nation) alone need to earn it (Iranian Democracy). Since our democracy will be different than other countries, we do not need their help or guidance.
If we ask for outsider help, then they will ask for return of favor later on. No thanks.

Nemat Khoda / October 16, 2009 5:21 AM

Need not worry Setareh...the democratic movement in Iran is in progress and the people will succeed. Although I understand the source of your frustration and despair, I believe Obama is doing the right thing. Through negotiations and talks the US is trying to keep tabs on Ahmadinejad's extreme maneuvers, in an attempt to create a regional system of checks and balances. In addition, as long as the Iranian government is engaged rather than isolated, the democratic movement in Iran will have a better chance of thriving. I think you should place your trust and hope on the people of Iran rather than the president of the United States.

Iman / October 16, 2009 7:22 AM

Setareh khanoom;
I do agree entirely with you.Let's hope that OBAMA reads your article too...!

Mazandaran / October 16, 2009 3:24 PM

Maybe the Iranian voters have something to teach voters in Western 'democracies' . Disregarding the messy aftermath and who actually won and deeply deploring the loss of lives and any human rights abuses.
The energy, enthusiasm, vibrant street debates and mostly peaceful and well mannered and jovial public participation with an eventual 85% voter participation is no mean achievement.

Obama who ran the most positive and inspiring political campaign in recent US political history could not, despite his almost 'messianic' portrayal by most parts of the media, persuade any more than 50-60% of the electorate to vote in this most 'democratic' of states. If there is one legacy that those who are ideologically opposed to the very idea of an Islamic Republic and particularly of the vali e faqih model, is that it has probably made them the most politically active nation in the whole world and this will be a good building block for any future genuine 'democratic' state where people's participation actually makes a difference unlike the sham that passes off as 'democracy' in many Western countries like the US and the UK with governments actually beholden to other interests.

rezvan / October 17, 2009 3:51 AM

I believe we Iranians still do not have a clue what we want. The new administration has left us to figure out what we want and we have to figure it out by ourselves not by any other outside power. Obama is the U.S. president and the first and formost important thing for him is to protect American's interest which is sit in front of A.N. and negotiate. It does not mean that he is weak or does not care about Iranians, it just means that he has to take care of his own country's interests first. We as Iranians want the whole world to just think about us and nothing more. As a human right activist for Iran and the world I am tired of hearing these naggings all the time. U.S. has no responsibility toward us, we for once have to face it and work hard for the freedom and earn it.Obama has done what a good leader would do. He has condemned the human rights violation in Iran but has stand aside and let the people to get what they want. I was in New York and believe me There is no lost love between the U.S. and Iran's regime.

pam / October 17, 2009 7:11 AM