There’s a chorus on the right, including some GOP leaders, complaining that President Obama ought to be saying more or doing more to support the Iranian protesters. It is unclear what, exactly, they wish him to do about Iran. Now, perhaps, is not the time for bombing, although that was, until recently, considered a dandy option by many; to offer loose words about support for protests risks repeating past American leaders’ errors in such situations, who have sometimes made perceived promises of help to uprisings and then failed to follow through — or even betrayed the protesters.
I think Obama is playing a careful hand: he knows that if he embraces Moussavi too closely he is, perversely, helping Ahmadinejad, whose chief recruiting tool has always been the anti-American banner.
But I also think that few Americans, and sadly even too few in the American media, have a full understanding of the arc of history here and the twisted record of American involvement in Iranian “regime change.”
The formative, primal event in the history of modern Iranian politics took place in 1953, when the U.S. government, working clandestinely through the CIA, helped overthrow an elected Iranian government and install the Shah as a friendly dictator. (Read more on this beginning here and following up here.) Everything that has happened since in Iran has happened under that shadow. Most Americans simply don’t remember this, but you can bet that Iranians do.
So a U.S. president has a particularly poor platform to stand on and lecture Iranians about violations of the electoral process. Obama — who in his Cairo speech publicly admitted the American role in the 1953 Iran coup for the first time — seems to understand this reality and to be working from that understanding, rather than denying it. It’s time for his critics to learn a little of that history, too.