Obama's Empty Message to Iran
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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