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June 25, 2009



Salon asks Hooman Majd:
"Would you say that the neoconservatives' extremely vocal calls to intervene on behalf of Mousavi are playing into the hands of the most conservative forces in Iran?"

The neocons know nothing about Iran, nothing about the culture of Iran. They have no interest in understanding Iran, in speaking to any Iranian other than Iranian exiles who support the idea of invasions -- I'll call them Iranian Chalabis. It's offensive, even to an Iranian American like me. These are people who would have actually preferred to have Ahmadinejad as president so they could continue to demonize him and were worried, as some wrote in Op-Eds, that Mousavi would be a distraction and would make it easier for Iranians to build a nuclear weapon and now all of a sudden they want to be on his side? Go away.

I'm not saying Obama is the most knowledgeable person on Iran, but he's obviously getting good advice right now. He understands way more about the culture of the Middle East than any of the neocons. For them to be lecturing President Obama is a joke. I have criticized Obama; for instance, I criticized him for having a patronizing tone in his Persian New Year message. But right now I think he's doing a good job. The John McCains of the world, they're Ahmadinejad's useful idiots. They're doing a great job for him."

Nathan Smith

Did John McCain prefer Ahmadinejad? The question may be taken as an indication of the worth of the quoted comment.


Why would Majd's perception of McCain being associated with the neocon right impact his appraisal of McCain's tactics on Iran? McCain was not one of those who seemed to welcome Ahmadinejad's reelection, no, but he is definitely one emitting "extremely vocal calls to intervene on behalf of Mousavi" (famously asserting that the elections were fraudulent) if anyone is, so I see nothing invalidating his basic point. That is to say: Iranian supporters of the protesters seem to think that Obama is doing it exactly right and that McCain et al. are damagingly mistaken. Well, McCain is mistaken anyway. Some other people really do seem convinced that only armed conflict with Iran will achieve our purposes and have adroitly shifted tactics to trying to fight over protestors.

Nathan Smith

I'm starting to feel really sorry for the Obama apologists. The position of a US president should be almost axiomatic here. US interests and values are overwhelmingly on the side of the protestors. A huge range of statements by the president would have merely confirmed the presumption of this view. Obama's initially waffly and oddly self-referential ("I'm concerned") response, and then a gaffe that suggested moral equivalence between the regime and the protestors, actually managed to cast doubt on this, provoking a firestorm of criticism, but then Obama changed tack and started talking like an American president. Fine. All's well that ends well. But the poor Obama apologists have to see something shrewd in this meandering path to a decent democratic condemnation of a fraudulent election and violence against peaceful protestors. Is Obama Ahmadinejad's useful idiot now? For, after all, Ahmadinejad is doing exactly what Obama apologists formerly warned us the regime would do if we took a strong line: blame the US for interference!

I know people like Majd, they're a dime a dozen, a *bien pensant* intelligentsia that buys into a sort of international left-liberal morality and feels that despising Republicans is a moral duty, like recycling. They might be good people in all kinds of ways. And they might be quite smart in lots of ways and even experts. But it seems pretty clear that these remarks reflect a blind devotion to Obama. Had Obama taken a hard line and the GOP cautioned moderation, Majd would be praising Obama for that.

Hey, I'll take it all back if Majd now thunders out against Obama for his newfound backbone. Or, for that matter, if McCain is on record favoring Ahmadinejad.


So it would appear that Nathan thinks he knows how the President could most effective aid, or at least fail to hinder, the protesters in Iran much better than Iranian-American journalists or presidents of Iranian-American groups or Nobel Prize-winning Iranian dissidents. Perhaps they are all just Obamaniacs who will use whatever tendentious arguments at their disposal to defend Dear Leader and left-liberal pieties. Another more plausible interpretation is that Nathan regards as proven that Obama is craven and a fool and so all evidence must be interpreted in this light. I don't know. But whatever the case, it's the height of hubris to simply dismiss the arguments of basically everyone actually involved with the protests as well as the predominance of opinions by Iran experts. So far, Nathan has linked to one dubious opinion piece written years ago by a young Republican activist and a neocon talking head. Is Nathan a diplomat? An expert on the Middle East? Does he have lots of Persian friends? Why on earth would he think it so obvious that the PotUS should behave the way Nathan thinks things should be done that he feels it appropriate to confidently attribute countervailing views to "a blind devotion to Obama."

Really, it's amazing.

Nathan Smith

re: "So it would appear that Nathan thinks he knows how the President could most effective aid, or at least fail to hinder, the protesters in Iran..."

No, and I don't believe anyone else does either.

re: "Another more plausible interpretation is that Nathan regards as proven that Obama is craven and a fool..."

This is actually contradicted by the above thread, in which I basically say Obama came down on the right side, eventually.

re: "it's the height of hubris to simply dismiss the arguments of basically everyone actually involved with the protests as well as the predominance of opinions by Iran experts."

Nato himself has posted links that contradict this, (politely) faulting Obama for-- at the time-- failing to condemn the violence. As for the claim about "Iranian experts," Nato's own quote from Majd contradicts it; even Majd says that neocons were talking to Iranians, though he calls them "Iranian Chalabis."

re: "Is Nathan a diplomat? An expert on the Middle East? Does he have lots of Persian friends?"

Nope. But I do know that if on Monday Obama says A and McCain says B, and C calls Obama shrewd and McCain an idiot, then Obama suddenly changes tune and says B, and C calls Obama shrewd, it's C's loyalty to Obama that's talking. You don't need to be an Iran expert to see that.

I'll charitably assume that Nato was just enjoying his rhetorical skills in the last comment.

Nathan Smith

Majd, by the way, might be a decent guy all in all, but I don't regret the contemptuous tone adopted two comments back. Someone who calls an American hero like John McCain a "useful idiot" when he doesn't even know the difference between McCain and the types of hawkish neocons who wanted Admadinejad to win has earned a contemptuous rebuke.


Well, Obama hasn't said that the elections were fraudulent just yet, but McCain did so right out the gate, when the regime was still somewhat restrained and the facts were even less clear. So, Obama still hasn't quite said "b" It's also worth noting that Ahmadinejad's attempts to blame things on the US are not having any notable success in fracturing the resistance while Mousavi has apparently gotten mileage out of Ahmadinejad's trip to the Russian conference. Considering that Obama made his stronger statement in the context of very widespread violent suppression of peaceful protesters, the chance of the Iranian regime *successfully* presenting his statements as presumptuous and interfering is essentially nil. Someone who knew invited him to use the word "condemn" and he did, just about as quickly as one can call a press conference.

McCain meanwhile, has his heart in the right place but jumped the gun, took an unhelpfully strident stance from the very beginning and unintentionally did his best to provide the Iranian regime pretext for painting the unrest as the result of foreign machinations. It's useful to Ahmadinejad, and it's idiotic. He should know better. He should be able to keep Sunnis and Shias straight in a press conference. He should know that Maliki, a Shia, would never contemplate something as impossible as finding an accommodation with Al Qaeda. There's a lot of things McCain should know about the Middle East that he apparently doesn't, and it sometimes blows my mind. He must just have some terrible advisers.

McCain knows the military, and so if he'd become president I wouldn't have worried too much about places like Iraq and Afghanistan where the military is in charge, but on Iran he's about as close to objectively wrong as it's possible to be. Heroism past or present has no place in it.

Finally, it's true that Obama isn't taking the lead on the crisis in Iran. He's leaving that to the Iranian dissenters themselves, though, not US domestic opinion or Republican critics or whomever. Which is exactly what he should do.

Nathan Smith

But the elections were fraudulent, no? Shouldn't American politicians tell the truth?


Well, it's become clear that they were to some degree, but it was less obvious before. The violence of the regime's response also lent credence (for Iranians) that the regime was willing to do anything - including preposterous vote-rigging - to control the populace. What little polling there had been before the election was less clear, some of it purporting to show Ahmadinejad with a commanding lead.

That's not to say that McCain's conclusion was unfounded - there were a number of very odd things going on right from the first - but rather that large segments of the Iranian populace hadn't yet made up their minds as to what had happened and what it all meant. That was the very *worst* time for us to be a topic of conversation in Iran.

Nathan Smith

If you look at the histories of revolutions, their dynamics are so unpredictable that even the most seasoned insiders are rarely able to act so as to manipulate and channel events. Still less is it possible for a foreign leader even to hope to pick the best words, except by luck, or even to know whether he did so until years afterwards, if then. I don't think a US president should even try to calculate the effect of his every word on events on the ground. Rather, his goals should be (a) upholding the moral dignity of the United States and affirming American values, and (b) establishing, by precedent, *doctrines* which will serve to predict US action and thereby affect the incentives of actors in the future. Knee-jerk, reflexive reactions are more able to establish doctrine than reactions that seem to be carefully weight and responsive to events, since the more our actions and statements respond to events, the more people will think they can manipulate us.

If McCain had been wrong about the elections being fraudulent, he would owe an apology to the Iranian regime. Since it's pretty clear he's wrong, he deserves all the more credit for seeing and speaking the truth quickly. And while I don't believe anybody really has a clue what the effect of presidential statements on development in Iran is, to the extent that Obama's convoluted reaction is an attempt to manipulate events by choice of words, it actually *is* an attempt to Iran's internal affairs in a way that a mere reflexive statement of the truth for the sake of America's own moral dignity would not be.


So we want to create doctrines for predictability but don't want our actions and statements to respond to events because then we might be manipulated? This is self-contradictory on its face. If we are predictable, then we can be manipulated, and we have been. Ahmadinejad et al. have already been using the reliably hostile response of the US to justify and maintain the hardline faction's control. Meanwhile a certain ambiguity about what exactly our response would be to a mainland attack on Taiwan ROC has allowed us to simultaneously improve relations with China and keep the ROC free.

The world is not our child to be instructed: we have neither the power nor the moral authority of a parent. This is not a reproof so much as a statement of limits. When one is in the position of a parent, consistency gets a lot of mileage. In a world where not only do other peoples' interests necessarily accord with ours, but their whole way of viewing the world is totally different, context-insensitive consistency just hands the advantage to adversaries.


An Iranian-American (journalist? policy expert? I don't remember) was interviewed by Terry Gross the other day on NPR. He said that these protests would not have happened if Bush were still president due to the threat of a US invasion. In other words, the people were willing to tolerate the status quo and support the regime in order to show unity in the face of US aggression. The expert also claimed that Obama's response has been ideal, and that he must have good advisers. It was a pretty good interview. Maybe I should try to find a transcript of it.

Nathan Smith

The expert's logic is difficult to follow. Would people have refrained from protesting because they thought the protests would *increase* the chance of a US invasion? It seems clear that, on the contrary, by overturning Ahmadinejad themselves, protestors would *avert* a US invasion-- or, at the worst, that they would have no effect.

Unless they thought that the US would take advantage of the regime's moment of weakness to invade...

I wonder whether the protests would have happened if *Saddam* were still in power. Would people be afraid of an Iraqi invasion in that case, to exploit Iran's moment of internal political weakness?


A few people on the fringes have advocated striking Iran's nuclear sites while they're distracted, but of course these are essentially fringe people. However, Iranians are less likely to be able to understand US intentions and how unlikely such a strike would be, so when their government portrayed it's old adversary as trying to foment dissent for its own advantage, that's a scenario many Iranians might accept as plausible. If the first gulf war had never crippled Iraq's military and set up the no fly zones, Saddam could very much have served the same purposes for the Iranian regime. Probably more so.


Stupid iPhone keeps "correcting" its to it's, regardless of whether it's a possessive pronoun or an actual contraction. I swear, these devices are going to destroy the language! Get off my lawn!

Nathan Smith

re: " If the first gulf war had never crippled Iraq's military and set up the no fly zones..."

The implication being that, given the partial incapacitation of the regime that had occurred by 2003, he no longer served that role. But a Saddam that got beat by a huge international US-led coalition could still look pretty scary to a smaller power. If anything, the fact that he survived the onslaught and then crushed a Shia rebellion afterwards could make him more formidable.

Suppose we were to formulate the counter-intuitive hypothesis that Saddam before 1991 played the role of outside threat to help the Iranian consolidate public opinion at home, and the Bush administration played that role in the 2000s, but-- here's the really counter-intuitive part-- Saddam's Iraq between 1991 and 2003 did *NOT* play that role, even though, as subsequent events showed, the whole world thought Saddam had WMDs? How would test this hypothesis? How would we distinguish it from the alternative hypotheses that (a) outside threats are neither here nor there, and the outbreak of protests in 2009 simply reflected that the reformers made a tactical mistake in boycotting the 2005 elections and then had to wait for the next elections as scheduled in the constitution, and, on the other hand, (b) that the removal of *both* Saddam *and* Bush from power was necessary to make the Iranian people sufficiently relaxed about outside threats that they could challenge their own government without feeling they risked creating an opening for foreign invasion?


Well, the first big outbreak of reformism was fairly successful in the late 1990s, in a time with Saddam around and collapsed later, in the Iraq War era. That said, if sanctions had continued to weaken, it's quite possible that Saddam would have recovered enough credible belligerence to again spike the reformists.

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