As some level of turmoil ebbed and flowed in Iran last week, one thread of criticism in the United States, coming principally from Republicans like John McCain (whose defeat in the November 2008 election seems like a better thing almost every day), was that the United States–read President Obama–was not being “tough enough” with the Tehran regime. The implication was that the U.S. should “do something” to reduce the Iranian regime’s crackdown on Iranians demonstrating against the election results there.
Beyond its basic macho appeal (“walk softly, carry a big stick, occasionally hit yourself over the head with the big stick”?) such entreaties make, what exactly do they mean? Not very much, I fear.
The arguments against a “get tough” policy against Iran flow from defects in what exactly getting tough means. I have isolated three such arguments, although I suppose there could be more.
1. “We should back Moussavi, the people’s choice.” Hogwash. First, Moussavi is hardly the kind of person with whom the United States has common cause. He did, after all, come to prominance in Iran after the 1979 revolution on the basis of his hatred for the U.S. Second, the last thing any Iranian politician can afford is to be associated with the United States government. We need to remember, as some have pointed out, that the U.S. government (unlike the American people) is not well regarded in Iran. We did, after all, engineer the overthrow of Iran’s only democratically elected regime and did help train and direct SAVAK, the Shah’s highly repressive secret police. The “great Satan” description, offensive though we may find it, did not come from nowhere. Third, it is not clear that Moussavi’s popularity in Iran extends beyond the fact that is he the not-Ahmedinejad. Associating him with American support (which he does not seek) would assure he never rises beyond not-Ahmediniejad. Scratch that rationale.
2. “We should impose greater sanctions on Iran to make them back down.” This is the American chestnut response to crises generally, it seldom works anywhere, and will not work here. Why not? First, we already have sanctions against Iran that don’t work, and since we don’t import Iranian oil,what else can we embargo? Pistaccios? Caviar? Second, any sanctions that might work must come from the EU (whose members do trade with Iran) or the UN. Go talk to them. Third, sanctions usually end up punishing the innocent, not those who sanctioners want to punish. Did Saddam Hussein or the Iraqi people suffer from American sanctions in the 1990s? You know the answer. Sanctions are a loser.
3.”As leader of the free world, we cannot turn our backs on what happens in Iran.” Nonsense–of course we can, and here’s why. First, the American foreign policy plate is full, and everyone knows it. Exactly how (other than sanctions) are we going to force the Iranians to do anything? Threaten them with military action? Get real here. Second, eventually we will have to deal with whoever rules Iran on regional matters (help with Iraq and Afghanistan) and about the nuclear program in the future. Is alienating them going to help that? Or is getting tough hitting ourselves over the head with the stick? Third, we are already overcommitted in that part of the world and are clearly in over our heads in terms of understanding and dealing with the region’s problems. A more active policy in Iran will simply make our mismanagement of the region worse. To paraphrase the old folk song and title of Richard Rovere’s book on Vietnam, “we’re waist deep in the big muddy, and the damned fools said (are telling us) to go on.”
Getting tough with Iran sounds good until you think about it for a nanosecond or more. What the Iranian mullahs are doing is reprehensible, and we are quite right in condemning it. Having said that, what is happening there is not primarily an American problem with American solutions. It is certainly an Iranian problem, and it may be a broader international problem that should engage the UN. Beyond what we are already doing (admittedly not a whole lot), it is hard to see what–or why–we should be sticking our noses further under the Iranian tent.