June 29, 2009

Obama isn't doing enough to help foster democracy in Iran

The security forces may have temporarily crushed the resistance in Iran, but the revolution is far from over. Iranians by the hundreds of thousands -- young and old, men and women, students and workers -- have taken to the streets for the last two weeks in protest of a rigged election. And no matter how many protesters the government kills or imprisons, the people know that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the legitimately elected leader of their country.

But in the face of the Iranians' courage, President Barack Obama has offered precious little support for the democratic yearnings of Iran's people. Just last week, after some two dozen people were killed and hundreds jailed, Obama referred to the situation as a "debate" taking place in Iran. His comments echoed earlier White House statements that said the administration was "impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians."

Obama's actions shouldn't surprise anyone. He has made a deliberate shift on the Middle East from his predecessor's objective to promote democracy in the region. Instead, Obama has consistently reached out to the thugs who rule Iran to seek rapprochement.

The Washington Times has reported that Obama sent a secret letter to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prior to the election proposing "cooperation in regional and bilateral relations," an allegation the White House has not denied. Again, no surprise. This is the president, after all, who promised during last year's campaign he would sit down with anyone from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kim Jong Il. Obama seems to believe his personal charm and charisma are enough to turn those bent on America's destruction into neutral, peace-seeking nations. For his efforts, Obama has received threats from North Korea that they will launch missiles toward Hawaii on July 4; and from Iran, election fraud and the greatest repression since the early days of the Islamic Revolution.

But despite Obama's feckless overtures to the tyrants, democracy may yet prevail in Iran. Middle East scholar Joshua Muravchik, in his important new book, "The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East," argues that one of the chief requisites for democracy is "democrats -- people who believe in democracy and are ready to work or fight for it." His book introduces an unfamiliar American audience to democrats in the Middle East, including Iranian Mohsen Sazegara, who began his political career as a young aide to Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and ended up a fierce critic of the regime.

Like many of those democrats who took to the streets in Tehran over the last few weeks, Sazegara has used the Internet to get his pro-democracy message out. Indeed the new technologies have made crackdowns on communications far more difficult, which is why it has been impossible for even a police state to stop information from spreading within Iran and to the outside world.

As Muravchik points out, "There is no reason why the democratic idea cannot have a rebirth in the Middle East. . . ." He acknowledges that the impetus must come from inside, from "the activists, journalists, politicians, feminists, dissidents, bloggers and other Middle Easterners" who are working to promote democracy. But he also reminds us that "our role as Americans is to encourage and assist them and to protect them from persecution to the extent we can."

Muravchik makes the case that the United States should not remain a bystander in promoting democracy in the Middle East and that there is much we can do, directly and indirectly, including "raising holy hell when (democrats) are persecuted. Too often our government has swallowed its words for fear of irritating the powers that be," he warns. Imagine how it must feel to those who are risking their lives now in Iran that the leader of the oldest democracy in the world has been so timid in his support of their efforts.

If Obama wishes to be the true leader of the free world, he must act like one. Iran's democrats deserve better than Obama has given.

The writer, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, based in Washington, D.C., was White House director of public liaison during the Reagan administration. Contact her at Creators Syndicate, 5777 Century Blvd. #700, Los Angeles, CA 90045.