On November 15, 1977, President Jimmy Carter welcomed Iran’s Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and the Empress, Farah Pahlavi, to the White House. It was, perhaps, one of the most inadvertently calamitous welcoming ceremonies for a foreign leader in the history of American welcoming ceremonies.
Near the White House, at Lafayette Park, approximately sixty thousand anti-Shah protesters had gathered to inveigh against the human rights abuses the Shah’s regime was accused of engaging in. Because the crowd seemed like it was getting out of control, the riot police on the scene tried to disperse them with tear gas. Unfortunately for President Carter, the Shah, and the Empress, and all others in attendance, the winds ensured that the tear gas wafted over to the White House, affecting everyone in attendance and causing them to weep.
The pictures struck Americans as bizarre and comical. But they struck Iranians differently. Stephen Hayward cites Gary Sick’s All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter With Iran, to note that the tear gas-filled welcoming ceremony had a certain political significance for Iranians. As Sick writes,
When the dissidents learned of the tear gas incident on the White House lawn, they reasoned that such an event could have occurred only at the president’s behest. Thus they quickly concluded that Carter had abandoned the Shah.
This kind of reaction was not restricted to everyday Iranians. In his memoirs, Answer to History, the Shah himself concluded that the Carter Administration had abandoned him because every time he consulted with the American ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, the ambassador would respond that he had received no instructions from Washington, and that as a consequence, he could not offer the Shah anything by way of aid, or comfort. As it turned out, Ambassador Sullivan had grown insubordinate, since he disagreed with the instructions that he was receiving from Washington, and his insubordination may have been the cause behind the nature of the ambassador’s non-responsiveness when it came to addressing the Shah’s requests and concerns. But none of that mattered in the end; the atmospherics of the situation all around convinced the Shah and his opponents that the United States would not object to the end of the Pahlavi dynasty.
With the onset of new demonstrations in Iran, every self-styled foreign policy expert is urging the Obama Administration to say and do little in terms of trying to help the reformist camp in the country. Reticence is urged because if the United States involves itself too heavily, it will supposedly create a backlash against the reformist movement, and its presumed imperialist patron–the United States. There is certainly something to be said for not getting the United States too involved. It naturally would not do to revive memories of Operation Ajax amongst the Iranian people, and at the end of the day, the only people who can save Iran from the theocrats and the fundamentalists are the Iranians themselves.
At the same time, however, too much reticence on the part of the United States may only serve to do to the reform movement what it did to the Shah; namely, signal that the United States does not have much invested in the reform movement, and that it considers the movement dispensable. Whether or not the United States is denounced by Iranians as an imperialist power, Iranians still do view the United States as powerful. If America invests itself in a foreign policy goal that affects Iran, Iranians notice it, and enter the fact into their calculations as they seek to determine whether the goal stands a good chance of being achieved. Independent of whether a particular goal is seen as desirable, the likelihood of it being achieved plays a central role in determining the actions of Iranians down the line.
In the case of the Shah, the comedy of errors surrounding the Carter Administration’s welcoming ceremonies, and the Administration’s perceived silence as the revolution raged, convinced both the Shah and his opponents that America had abandoned the Pahlavi dynasty. In the case of the current unrest in Iran, silence on the part of the Obama Administration–while intended to betray no imperialist sentiments–may well serve to show that America is not invested in the reform movement. If this perception takes hold, the movement will be doomed.
President Obama has announced that Iranians must be allowed to pick their own leaders. That is all fine and good, but there was no denunciation of the electoral fraud that was visited on Iranians. Moreover, the Obama Administration has indicated that it is still prepared to go ahead with negotiations with an Ahmadinejad government in the event that the protests in Iran fizzle, and the electoral fraud is allowed to stand. Shockingly, the State Department refuses to condemn the Iranian government’s crackdown on the protesters, or even acknowledge that electoral fraud has taken place.
The Administration’s stance is a grave mistake, for reasons explained in the following excerpt:
. . . a number of Iranian opposition leaders, inside and outside Iran, are calling on Mr. Obama to lend more direct public support to Iranians challenging the vote that re-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These activists fear that any near-term dialogue between the Obama administration and Mr. Ahmadinejad or Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could result in legitimizing the Iranian regime while also validating the election results.
In his outreach so far to Iran, including in a speech on the Persian New Year, Mr. Obama has generally demurred on addressing democracy and human-rights issues while recognizing the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Many Iranian activists say his stance will have to change.
“During the Iran New Year speech, he completely didn’t address the human-rights issue. I think he got this wrong,” said Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American-Iranian Council, which promotes dialogue. “If I was the U.S. government, I’d say this result calls for a coalition. The current system is wrong: it doesn’t respond to the interests of the Iranian people.”
Those who have opposed the Islamic regime and its various depredations–both inside and outside of Iran–have waited over thirty years for a moment like this one. A moment in which the fundamental nature of the Iranian government could be changed for the better. A moment when, at long last, Iran’s leaders may come close to becoming worthy of its people.
How devastatingly tragic would it be if this moment were allowed to pass, merely because the Obama Administration might overshoot its efforts to refrain from imperialism.
Not all silence is golden.