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The U.S. must be a quiet ally to Iran's protesters

History shows that Obama can do more harm than good by speaking out too forcibly.

June 23, 2009

When weighing a response to an international crisis, a U.S. president defines American interests, examines the political landscape and selects from a menu of generally imperfect options ranging from war to prudent inaction. In the case of Iran, President Obama has rightly determined that it is in the U.S. interest to speak up for the opposition forces' fundamental rights to assembly and free speech, but that he otherwise must refrain from bluster or bullying that would provide a justification for more repression.

In weak states, the United States can back popular uprisings and use its formidable influence to usher strongmen out of power, as it did with Ferdinand Marcos and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the Philippines and Haiti, respectively, in the 1980s. An alternative example is Poland, where U.S. moral support for the Solidarity movement helped tip the balance against a teetering pro-Soviet regime during the Cold War. Yet Iran is neither a U.S. client state nor, apparently, on the verge of collapse.

A fraught U.S.-Iranian history argues against more direct intervention, starting with the U.S. role in overthrowing elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, and including U.S. support for the shah over the revolutionary forces that brought the Islamic government to power in 1979. Add in the subsequent hostage crisis, plus decades of mutual hostility over regional conflicts and nuclear weapons, and it becomes clear why more forceful action from Obama could backfire. He must continue to protest the bloodshed, but he cannot hand Iranian hard-liners a stick with which to beat the opposition.

There is a lesson in the 1956 uprising against Hungary's Soviet-backed government, when Radio Free Europe's Hungarian-language programs broadcast news of the rebellion and egged on the revolutionaries, leading many to believe that NATO or the United Nations would support them. The Soviets suppressed the revolution, and no Western troops arrived.

More violence can be expected in Iran and, with it, increased U.S. political pressure on Obama to do something. But it is important to remember that Iran's opposition leaders are not asking for U.S. help, and many Iranians fighting for their freedoms are not necessarily pro-American.

Unlike the student movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Iran's pro-democracy protests appear to be broad-based, including urban middle-class men and women and parts of the revolutionary elite. And they appear ready to try new tactics, such as strikes. They are pursuing their own destiny -- and can best do it with the moral support but not the meddling of the U.S.

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