Jon Henke Is A Friend

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on June 21, 2009

He is also a very smart guy, who has written very important material on how Republicans can get their groove back after two straight election losses. The Next Right, which Jon maintains, along with Soren Dayton and Patrick Ruffini, is must-reading all the time. I have lots of respect for him.

So, I hope that he won’t take it the wrong way when I tell him that he is completely wrong when it comes to American policy concerning the protests in Iran.

First of all, with all respect to Jon, it is incoherent for him to suggest that we should not “take sides” in Iran’s election. The election already happened, there was massive fraud, the people were disenfranchised, and now, they are having their heads smashed in by a regime whose actions are harmful to American interests. If that doesn’t call for something approaching an American response, nothing will.

It is nice to see that however belatedly (and however weakly), President Obama has finally decided to say something negative about the actions of the regime in response to legitimate and entirely justified protests on the part of the Iranian people. But of course, more is needed. I repeat myself: It is certainly not desirable to do too much when it comes to responding to events in Iran. But it is also wrong to do nothing. There are very real perils associated with non-involvement. And while Jon and others are right to point out that we cannot be seen as meddling, the fact of the matter is that our strategic interests are joined with the aspirations of the Iranian people on this matter. This may not always be the case, but it is the case now. And that requires us to take judicious, measured, but strong, and unmistakable actions in response to the bloody crackdown that we have seen take place against the reformists. We cannot simply shut down our policymaking vis-à-vis Iran because we fear that anything and everything we do will supposedly “play into the hands” of the regime.

One does not, of course, have to rely on the self-promotion of my articles to see the point that we cannot remain entirely on the sidelines when it comes to responding to the demonstrations that have taken place in Iran. Take a look at what Peter Feaver writes. He accurately points out that we can and should be doing well by doing good; that is, we ought to support the protesters not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it helps us create fissures in the regime that will be important to use in upcoming negotiations over issues like Iran’s efforts to get its hands on nuclear technology. Feaver’s words are worth quoting at length:

. . . the ham-handed way the Ahmadinejad faction manipulated the election results has managed to exacerbate faction fissures within the Tehran regime beyond any level seen in recent years. Obama is right that, insofar as the nuclear file goes, and insofar as the world as it was a week or so goes, a consolidated Ahmadinejad presidency would not have been much worse than a consolidated Mousavi presidency: Ahmadinejad is discernibly worse, but neither would have been a very good negotiating partner.

But a lot has happened in the past week, and it is not at all clear that the Mousavi of today is “much of a muchness” with Ahmadinejad. He is no nuclear dove, but he could be a Gorbachev-like figure whose tolerance for partial reform to reignite the revolution has the unintended effect of sowing the seeds of the regime’s own destruction. At a minimum, the populist outrage Mousavi has stirred means that the election (and resulting protests, of course), far from consolidating power within Tehran, is pushing the regime closer to the cracking point. A regime that is cracking from within may be the only one that would accept a nuclear deal we could live with. To be sure, that sort of deal would have to offer face-saving fig-leafs to let the hobbled regime “declare victory” — but a cracked regime is the only kind that would have the requisite strategic horizon to accept it.

So the administration should be doing whatever it can to let those fissures widen. Obama is right that he has to be careful not to act in a ham-handed way that lets the Ahmadinejad faction rally Persian hyper-nationalism with bogus charges of American meddling. He should choose his words artfully, and not treat Iranians to the type of rhetorical abuse that they heap on us with on a daily basis, for instance. But our interests here are clear: the regime should be seen as discredited for discreditable action, and even if Khamenei succeeds in installing Ahmadinejad over Mousavi, as seems likely (but by no means certain), we want the faction that has mobilized the street protests to be as strong as possible.

It is not clear that the Obama team has figured out how best to accomplish this. It is not even clear that they understand this is what needs to be done.

Thus far, the Administration has generally remained on the sidelines. We all understand why it is doing this, but as Feaver writes, the Administration’s efforts are self-defeating here. No one is demanding war with Iran, or the instigation of a coup by the CIA. But sitting on one’s hands is just not called for here.

As Christian Brose points out, the Obama Administration has thus far been putting the cart before the horse when it comes to prioritizing its actions on Iran. I hope that Jon really doesn’t want this kind of nonsense to continue, but the Administration’s stance will remain the status quo if, as Jon suggests, we should really refrain from any kind of serious action.

Again, while I respect Jon and think that at the end of the day, Iran’s future will be determined by Iranians, there is no way that one can seriously suggest that the United States should remain silent on the issue of Iran. Even if the Obama Administration does not believe that we can both stand up for our interests and our values, and refrain from imperialism, I think that we are able to walk and chew gum on this issue. I hope that soon, Jon will come to agree with me.

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