America Should Keep Iran's Protesters at Arm's Length
Even if most of the antigovernment activists turn out to be secular democrats, the United States should avoid offering a tight embrace. Excessive praise could easily prove suffocating for the cause of freedom. As noted, Washington has a well-deserved negative reputation among Iranians across the political spectrum. The CIA, together with Britain’s intelligence agency, orchestrated the 1953 coup that restored the tyrannical shah to power for a quarter century. Iranians have not forgotten that episode. Nor have they forgotten Washington’s unsubtle support for Saddam Hussein’s bloody war of aggression against their country in the 1980s—a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians.
Given that background, the beleaguered clerical regime will likely try to portray critics as U.S. puppets and stooges. If prominent Americans express vocal support for the protesters, it makes that task all that much easier. A U.S. endorsement could be (in some cases quite literally) the kiss of death for anti-regime activists.
This situation cries out for a cautious, even aloof, U.S. posture. If the demonstrations truly herald the emergence of a secular, democratic Iran, that outcome would be most welcome. But we don’t have enough information to know what a postclerical regime would look like, even if the protests lead to fundamental political change. And the last thing our leaders should do is reduce the chances of an optimal outcome by engaging in a clumsy, suffocating effort to “help” dissidents. For once, let the restless people of another country confronting a repressive regime work out their political destiny in their own way without U.S. interference.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than 700 articles on international affairs.