After its fraudulent election, Obama should harden his stance with Iran.

Military analysis.
June 15 2009 7:14 PM

Disengagement With Iran

After its fraudulent election, Obama should harden his stance with Iran.

Read more of Slate's coverage of Iran's June 12 election and its aftermath.

It's time for President Obama to rethink his policy of "engagement" with Iran.

Given the near-certainty that Iran's election was fixed and the documented fact that protesters are being brutalized, there is no way that Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could go to Tehran and shake hands with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, much less to expect that any talks would be worthwhile.

The issue here is not one of realpolitik vs. democratic idealism. Rather, it's a question about what course of action is simply realistic (in the conversational, as opposed to ideological, sense of the word).

A classic international realist, in the tradition of Henry Kissinger, might shrug off the call for a revision in outlook and policy. After all, it's nothing new or unusual for the United States, or any other power, to cultivate diplomatic relations with illegitimate regimes. If there hadn't been an election, Obama would have proceeded to open a dialogue. And the nature of the Iranian government, which isn't really run by the president, anyway, is basically the same now as it was last week.

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But, in fact, something has changed. The blatant fraudulence of the election has mobilized the Iranian people in a way that hasn't been seen since the 1979 revolution, which led to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The shah seemed to control Iran back then as tightly as the Islamic mullahs do today. The decisive moment in '79 occurred when middle-class merchants—the heart of the shah's political support—joined the students and the radicals in revolt.

What social group might now play the same role that the merchants played then? This is where today's situation differs from that of 30 years ago. There might very well be no such group. Rural conservative peasants form the main base of support for Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, and there's no reason to believe they'll join the young men and (especially) women protesting in the streets of the capital city.

Unless the violence widens the fissures in Iranian society to an unprecedented—almost unimaginable—degree, the agitation could simply peter out in the coming days and weeks as more and more protesters are beaten, detained, and even killed, with no effect on the regime's survival. In this case, it may well be, as a story in today's New York Times predicted, that the hardliners wind up more firmly in control than ever.

Yet reports have circulated in recent months suggesting that some Iranian clerics, even a few in high places, are displeased with Ahmadinejad's harsh rhetoric and his mishandling of the economy. Some evidence of electoral fraud has reportedly been leaked from dissidents from within Iran's interior ministry. The supreme leader has ordered the Guardian Council to investigate allegations of fraud—this after publicly ratifying the election's results (without, suspiciously, observing the three-day waiting period that Iranian law requires)—though it may be that this order is mere subterfuge and that the investigation will be just as fraudulent.

In other words, it is possible (how likely it might be, no one can say) that the popular revolts might sharpen the fissures within the circles of Iran's ruling elite. Of course, those circles are so opaque that few outsiders can tell whether there are fissures, much less what their boundaries are. Does the CIA or the National Security Agency know? I hope so, but I don't know.

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