Presidents dealing with foreign uprisings are haunted by two historical precedents. The first is Hungary in 1956, in which Radio Free Europe encouraged an armed revolt against Soviet occupation -- a revolt that America had no capability or intention of materially supporting. In the contest of Molotov cocktails vs. tanks, about 2,500 revolutionaries died; 1,200 were later executed.
The second precedent is Ukraine in 1991, where the forces that eventually destroyed the Soviet Union were collecting. President George H.W. Bush visited that Soviet republic a month before its scheduled vote on independence. Instead of siding with Ukrainian aspirations, he gave a speech that warned against "suicidal nationalism" and a "hopeless course of isolation." William Safire dubbed it the "chicken Kiev" speech, which fit and stuck. The first Bush administration was so frightened of geopolitical instability that it managed to play down American ideals while missing a strategic opportunity.
In President Obama's snail-mail response to Iran's Twitter revolution, he has tended toward the chicken Kiev model. Which should not be surprising. During the presidential campaign, Obama summarized his approach to foreign affairs: "It's an argument between ideology and foreign-policy realism. I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush." Such "realism" has translated into criticism of the Iranian regime that began as pathetic and progressed to mild. The intention seems obvious -- to criticize just enough to avoid appearing cynical, but not so much as to undermine the possibility of engagement with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs.
The practical justification for this approach is that American "meddling" would discredit the Iranian opposition. But this argument shows how simplistic "realism" often turns out to be. It is not necessary or advisable for an American president to directly criticize Iran's electoral process or endorse the opposition. Obama could, instead, have harshly criticized the regime thugs on motorbikes for breaking the heads of women and youth during protests, and he could have led the world in condemning Internet censorship and the arrest of dissidents. Instead of critiquing Iran's political processes, he could have spoken for human rights with firmness and clarity.
The arguments for this approach are not merely moral. It is in the direct, hardheaded interest of the United States to encourage enough social space in Iran to test how far these protests eventually might go, since they have already gone further than most thought possible.
Once again, those who sneer that elections in the broader Middle East are unimportant -- because democracy is more than elections -- have gotten it wrong. An election, as in Iran, can be more than a poll; it can be a fuse. These elections not only summarized Iranian discontent but galvanized it. The resentments of women treated by clerics as children, of a middle class struggling in a failing economy and of sophisticated citizens ruled by a president both dangerous and clownish don't seem likely to fade on their own. These reformers will do lethal damage to the regime -- or they will be violently repressed by the regime, which has cut the Internet and banned the news media, the ritual preparations for a bloodbath.
The success of such repression would make the Obama administration's strategy of engagement even more risible than it is today. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has clearly decided that Ahmadinejad's political base is also his own political base -- the grass-roots source of the regime's survival. This means, in essence, that the ayatollah is now dependent on Ahmadinejad instead of the other way around -- or, perhaps, codependent is the proper term. Iran's apocalyptic president will emerge emboldened if the regime prevails. On nuclear weapons, on anti-Semitism, on support for terrorism, Ahmadinejad will feel vindicated, and not in a negotiating mood. And such diplomatic engagement, after a successful repression, would not only be difficult but shameful -- like breaking out the champagne and cigars following Tiananmen. How could Obama or Hillary Clinton or anyone else shake the bloody hands and walk the bloody streets on the way to some meeting in Tehran?
The choices in dealing with an ascendant Iranian regime would be few and flawed. The world could directly attempt to undermine Iranian nuclear capabilities -- as the previous administration (it is reported) tried through covert action, and as Israel may attempt through bombing. At its most successful, this would only delay the nuclear program in the hope of future political changes. Or the world could step up sanctions and increase Iran's isolation -- attempting to create a different and better atmosphere for some future deal. But this assumes the support of hesitant Europeans and a thoroughly irresponsible Russia.
Given these options, perhaps the most realistic alternative in Iran is also the most idealistic: Freedom now.