This weekend Iran is roiled by the greatest turmoil since the 1979 revolution, while there is an ongoing debate inside the Obama Administration. One camp has argued that the Iranian political order could be fundamentally shaken in the days ahead, as in Poland in 1989 and Ukraine in 2004. The other camp, which appears to be the majority view among Obama's principal advisors, has thus far predicted that mass unrest will be crushed, as in the 1968 Prague Spring or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and it is dangerous to take the side likely to lose; especially since President Obama wants to move quickly to negotiations with the regime over Iran's nuclear program.
Against that backdrop, the President and his aides have made a three-part case: 1) supporting the opposition could be counterproductive, 2) this is particularly true in light of CIA involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran, and 3) there is little difference between the opposition leader and the current Iranian president. (See pictures of Iran's presidential elections and their turbulent aftermath.)
Let's start with the most recent part of the argument. In an interview on CNBC on June 17, Mr. Obama argued against the U.S. aiding reformers on the basis of the choice between the purported election winner, Ahmadinejad, and protest leader Mousavi. He cautioned that Mousavi is no classical liberal: he had to pass muster with the clerics in Tehran in order even to qualify for the ballot and, as far as foreign policy is concerned, there is no difference. The Administration is correct. But U.S. support for the reform movement need not be centered solely around Mousavi. While he is the fulcrum now of daily protests, the movement he represents is much larger, more complex and has much grander aspirations for change in Iran.