Obama's Empty Message to Iran

By Eli Lake

Bloomberg View

March 22, 2015

Like almost all dictators, Iran's supreme leader has a legitimacy problem. Most Iranians today are too fearful to take to the streets and demand a government that represents them. (They tried in 2009 and 1999, and paid in blood.) But deep down, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must suspect that millions of his own people quietly loathe him.

So Khamenei demands the legitimacy he lacks at home from the outside. It's a classic ploy. Soviet diplomats used to tell Western reporters about how political prisoners were sentenced by independent courts. Saddam Hussein would hold faux-elections. Toothless oppositions were allowed in Mubarak and Sadat's Egypt. In Iran, there is even a special Jewish representative in parliament.

There are consequences when open societies speak too loudly about the deficit of freedom in closed ones. When a U.S. president speaks plainly about a dictator, it undermines his regime's legitimacy at home.    

With that in mind, imagine how delighted Khamenei must have been with U.S. President Barack Obama's message last week on Persian New Year, or Nowruz. Obama urged the Iranian people to press their leaders to accept a nuclear deal he said would help end Iran's international isolation. "Now it's up to all of us, Iranians and Americans, to seize this moment and the possibilities that can bloom in this new season," Obama said. He concluded by saying: "My message to you, the people of Iran, is that together we have to speak up for the future that we seek."

It's as if Iran is just like France or Brazil. In those countries, leaders have to care about popular opinion because they have to run for election. But in Iran, only Khamenei decides whether or not to take Obama's offer. Iran's people have nothing to do with it.

Obama surely understands this. He has written Khamenei directly about repairing the U.S.-Iran relationship. He is also well aware of how in the past Khamenei has crushed those who have sought to open Iranian society. After a week of silence, Obama condemned the crackdown following Iran's 2009 presidential vote, when supporters of a reformist "green movement" took to the streets to protest what they considered Khamenei's theft of that election. 

Indeed, Obama acknowledged these harsh facts in his 2011 Nowruz message: "Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in jail. The innocent have gone missing. Journalists have been silenced. Women tortured. Children sentenced to death.

In 2013, Iranians elected Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned as a reformer on a pledge to free political prisoners. Yet the leaders of the green movement remain under house arrest. After all, Rouhani helped orchestrate the crackdowns against student protests in 1999, and was one of a few candidates selected by an unelected council of clerics.

I asked Ahmed Batebi, an Iranian dissident who gained fame in 1999 when he appeared on the cover of the Economist waiving a bloody shirt during a protest at Tehran University, about Obama's message. "You have to consider Iran's government structure," he said. "The Iranian people have no say at all in nuclear decisions." 

Batebi was arrested and sentenced to death after the Economist episode. The sentence was reduced to 15 years following international outcry. In 2008, he escaped Iran through Iraq and received political asylum in the U.S. 

Contrary to Obama's claim that a nuclear pact would lead to a freer Iran, Batebi believes a deal will saddle Iranians with dictatorship indefinitely. He compared it to the nuclear accord reached in 2003 between President George W. Bush and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. 

"Obama forgot the human rights in the nuclear discussion, he is looking for a deal and it doesn't matter if this deal is good or bad for the Iranian people," Batebi said. "I believe he is looking for a Libya situation, they had a deal, and after that the United States did not talk about human rights. I believe we will have a similar situation in Iran." 

From an arms-control perspective, the Iran agreement taking shape is actually much weaker than the one forged with Qaddafi. Libya was required to dismantle its entire nuclear program, whereas Khamenei will likely be able to keep much of his nuclear infrastructure in place, in exchange for more intrusive inspections.

But the two agreements are similar in not requiring the strongman to govern with the consent of his people. The package now being ironed out in Switzerland will not require Khamenei to release political prisoners, reform the constitution, empower the elected presidency or dismantle the security services that treat much dissent as treason. The White House acknowledged that it won't even require Iran end its support for terrorism.  

In this sense, the Libya example is instructive. While it was very good to get nuclear materials out of Qaddafi's hands, dropping the pressure on him to reform his dictatorship turned out poorly for both sides. Continued repression led to the uprising of 2010 and eventually Qaddafi's gruesome death. Yet in the aftermath, Libya had no experienced opposition prepared to govern, and has descended into civil war.  

Should Iran's regime ever go the way of Libya's, I doubt the new leaders will look on Obama's deal as the kind of positive change he promised. Indeed, they will likely resent that a U.S. president had the nerve to pretend it ever mattered what the Iranian people thought of the deal Obama wished their dictator would accept.