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Obama Cowers on Iran

Obama Cowers on Iran

By Jack Kelly - June 17, 2009

You probably haven't heard about the Andijan massacre, because it happened in Uzbekistan, which I doubt many journalists can find on a map. But it has important implications for what's happening now in Iran.

Between 2003 and 2005 -- probably not coincidentally just after the U.S. threw out Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- there were a series of "color revolutions" in which mostly peaceful popular revolts overthrew authoritarian regimes. There was the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003; the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005.

The color revolutions came to a screeching halt after Andijan, where security forces loyal to Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov opened fire on a huge, unarmed crowd. A defector from the Uzbek security service estimated 1,500 were killed. Many were buried in unmarked mass graves.

Iran is convulsed by its greatest civic unrest since that of 1979, which led to the fall of the Shah. Some news organizations have estimated the number of those in the streets of Tehran protesting the alleged re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at more than a million (the crowd at Monday's protest stretched five miles long). Many hope this portends the fall of the mullahs.

That depends mostly on how ruthless the mullahs are willing to be, and somewhat on the support the protesters receive from the outside world, particularly the United States, because that has an impact on how ruthless the mullahs think they can be. Syria could not do in Lebanon what Mr. Karimov did at Andijan because the world was watching what was happening in Lebanon.

Many in the West have a romanticized notion of what can be accomplished by peaceful protest and world opinion. Really ruthless regimes don't fall to popular protests, no matter how large, because they are willing to kill everyone they need to kill to stay in power.

And world opinion doesn't matter much if the world isn't willing to back up its opinion with more than words. The democracy protests in China in 1989 drew as much attention as the protests in Iran are today, but that didn't prevent the Chinese government from crushing the unarmed demonstators in Tiananmen Square. (China congratulated Mr.

Karimov after Andijan, and reportedly is providing advice on security strategy to the government of Iran. The young protesters in Iran are as brave as the democracy protesters in Tiananmen were, but whether they triumph, or are beaten to death in dank prisons, depends mostly on whether the security services remain loyal to the regime.

There are some hopeful signs. The army has remained on the sidelines, making it clear it will not turn its guns on its own people. The Cyrus News Agency reported Tuesday 16 senior members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps have been arrested for insufficient repressive zeal. The regime's dirty work has been left largely to the Basiji, a militia composed of young religious zealots from the countryside. But the revolution won't succeed unless significant portions of the army and IRGC get off the fence and support the people.

This is where world opinion can have an impact. If world leaders strongly and unequivocably support the protesters, and credibly threaten the regime with consequences for repression, this could influence many fence-sitters in the army and the IRGC. It could also influence mullahs wavering between more repression and following their Swiss bank accounts out of the country. One reason why Syria didn't do in Lebanon what Karimov did at Andijan is because President Bush had just made it plain he would support democracy with more than words.

The leaders of Canada, France and Germany have harshly condemned the repression in Iran, but President Barack Obama has yet to muster as much indignation for the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he has expressed for the leader of Israel. And Mr. Obama has made it clear there is nothing so horrible Mr. Ahmadinejad can do that will keep him from pursuing rapprochement with Iran.

Little could encourage the repressive forces more. "Probe with a bayonet," Lenin said. "If you encounter steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push."

The mullahs are probing President Obama. They are not encountering steel.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

Copyright 2009, Journal Press Syndicate

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