The White House made clear on Sunday that Barack Obama will proceed with his push for diplomatic engagement with Iran, no matter the outcome of the current upheaval in the Islamic Republic.
Appearing on several Sunday morning talk shows, Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, and David Axelrod, one of the president’s top advisers, stressed the same basic theme: that this month’s election shouldn’t dissuade the U.S. from trying to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president, is the real decision-maker in Tehran.
“That was the case before the election; it is the case now,” Rice said on CBS’s Face the Nation.
How and when the political situation in Iran will be resolved is anyone’s guess. The momentum for the street protest seemed to be wilting in the last few days, the result of the government’s merciless crackdown, but it seemed to pick up again on Sunday. At the same time, it’s also at least possible that, even if the protest movement fails, the Khamenei regime’s opponents could pull off a backdoor coup by enlisting clerical leaders in a bid to oust the Supreme Leader.
Still, the most likely outcome seems to be the simplest: the crackdown succeeds, the protests fizzle, the clerics slowly fall back into line, and the election stands. That is certainly the scenario the White House had in mind when it sent Rice and Axelrod onto the Sunday morning circuit. And if it is the scenario that unfolds, there will be domestic political risks for Obama in pushing ahead with diplomacy.
Here, a rough parallel can be drawn to George H. W. Bush and his response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. The Chinese government’s vicious crackdown, much of it carried live on television, enraged an American public that had previously paid little attention to life in China. Confronted with such naked injustice, surely the president would use every means at his disposal to punish the Chinese government—right?
But that’s not what Bush, who had served as the U.S. ambassador to China in the mid-1970s, had in mind. He feared that imposing penalties, such as revoking China’s Most Favored Nation trade designation, would prompt the Chinese government to reverse the gradual (but significant) steps toward freedom and openness that it had taken in the decade leading up to Tiananmen. So he limited his comments to condemning the nature of the crackdown and otherwise took a largely hands-off approach.
This exposed Bush to domestic political attacks from Democrats almost identical to the ones that Republicans have launched against Obama over Iran. On Meet the Press a few days after Tiananmen, Tom Foley, then the speaker of the House, addressed Bush’s handling thusly: “There are people who feel we ought to speak out more loudly and more clearly. I think the president probably needs to do that. We are outraged as a country about the death sentences, about the suppression, and about the enormous big lie that the Chinese government is attempting to tell about this story.”
It would be wrong to say that Tiananmen is the reason Bush went on to lose his reelection bid in 1992. With no further uprisings after the June massacre, the media lost interest and so did most Americans, and just over 18 months later—after the 1991 Gulf War—Bush’s approval rating stood at 90 percent. So as unpopular as his handling of Tiananmen was, he certainly could have won reelection anyway.
But by taking the approach he did, Bush handed his political opponents a weapon, and they rarely missed an opportunity to beat him with it. In his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton repeatedly savaged Bush for “molly-coddling of those brutal old men in China who turned the tanks on their own students at Tiananmen Square” and promised to end China’s Most Favored Nation status as president. And at their New York convention that summer, Democrats showcased veterans of the Tiananmen uprising on stage.
Voters in ’92 had long since stopped thinking about China on a regular basis, but they still had their memories of those awful, disturbing images from June ’89. With the economy dragging Bush’s poll numbers down and endangering his reelection prospects, reviving those memories provided Clinton and the Democrats with yet another indictment of his leadership. To most voters, Tiananmen had always been a simple moral issue: The Chinese government had behaved horrifically and Bush had never been as outraged as he should have been.
Obviously, the situation with Iran is not exactly the same. For one thing, the nuclear issue will keep Iran in the news for the foreseeable future, even if the crackdown succeeds and there are no more protests. And Obama (as Axelrod and Rice did Sunday) can try to frame any diplomatic overtures in terms that may be understandable to Americans who know of Iran only what they’ve seen and read in the last few weeks. If we don’t try to strike a deal, Obama can essentially say, this same government will end up with a nuclear weapon. This may buy him slack that Bush never enjoyed.
Still, to much of the public, the memories of the past two weeks will live on much like the memories of Tiananmen did 20 years ago. The reality is that Obama has taken a responsible course by refusing to inject himself into the Iranian drama. But when his opponents rekindle memories of this moment three years from now, will Americans see it that way?