The “no-meddling in Iranian affairs” imperative

Seth Leibsohn challenges President Obama’s view that the U.S. should not be seen as “meddling” in Iranian affairs. It does seem odd that Obama is willing to tell certain Israelis that they cannot build homes for their families, even as his respect for Iranian sovereignty makes him too bashful to talk about basic questions of human rights except in the most general terms.

It has been suggested that Obama is well-advised not to speak up in favor of the dissidents because taking their side would enable the regime to de-legitimize the opposition as tools of evil America. Some have even speculated that the Iranian opposition has asked the U.S. to remain largely silent.

The former claim is extremely difficult to assess; the latter is probably impossible. But we can note the tension between these claims and the view that Obama has made major inroads in influencing Muslim public opinion. For if Obama’s popularity extends beyond Iran’s student activists and intellectuals, a group that traditionally is pro-American or has no serious quarrel with the U.S., then his support should not be a liability for the opposition. And if his broader popularity is somehow contingent on not criticizing repressive dictators, then that popularity doesn’t seem worth cultivating except for egotistical reasons.

I suspect the real reason why Obama can’t get off the fence is that he is convinced the regime will survive and thus will be the party he deals with if-and-when negotiations take place. Obama is probably correct that the regime will survive. But even accepting his imperative that we negotiate without pre-conditions with Iran’s leaders, I question whether Obama strengthens his hand by refusing to criticize the regime.

It’s difficult to imagine what Obama has to offer the regime that would be more valuable to it than an arsenal of nuclear weapons and the ability to extend its influence throughout the region via Hezbollah. But if Obama has identified such a thing, then the regime can be expected to grab it regardless of what Obama has said about other matters. Unless Obama’s sheer existence has changed the laws of diplomacy, the course of negotations will be determined by the perceived interests of the parties, not past rhetoric.

For example, no American president made more progress in negotiating with the Soviet Union than President Reagan did. And no American president was as aggressive in his criticism of the Soviet regime.

In other words, interests matter, not atmospherics. But if atmospherics did matter, it seems unlikely that craven disregard of the abuses of the Iranian regime would create an atmosphere helpful to the promotion of U.S. interests during negotiations with that regime.

UPDATE: In the comments, Ed Zuckerbrod observes:

A few weeks back, when Chrysler bondholders refused to endorse a deal that they felt was disproportionately onerous to their interests, not to mention contrary to bankruptcy law and many years of common business practice, President Obama had no difficulty declaring, “I do not stand with these people.”

I may be mistaken, but I believe those were the most direct, clearest, and unequivocal words uttered by Mr. Obama on any issue since the day he was sworn into office.

Of course, he was not talking about any mullah dictators, or terrorists, or even white-collar swindlers, but many ordinary Americans like teachers and policemen. Their union pension funds had invested in Chrysler debt, and their retirements were now threatened by the valuations placed on their bonds by the proposed deal.

Contrast that statement with his kid glove handling of Ahmadinejad and the rest of the mullahocracy, and you have to really wonder about this man’s character. Here is an issue that has possible implications for world peace for many years to come, and he is fence straddling.

With whom do we stand, Mr. President?

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