The Last Thing the Iranian Reformers Need

It’s not a stretch for Americans to look at the scenes of mass protest in Iran and think back to 1989, when popular uprisings toppled one Soviet-backed regime after another in Eastern Europe.

That mental association is one that Barack Obama’s critics have seized upon, arguing that the same presidential bully pulpit that hastened the liberation of those nations from Moscow 20 years ago should now be used to spur on the women, men and children bravely facing the Basiji militia in the streets of Tehran.   

Mike Pence, the third-ranking Republican in the House, succinctly expressed this view on Monday: “When Ronald Reagan went to the Brandenburg Gate, he did not say, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, that wall is none of our business.’”

It all sounds good enough—until you realize that the analogy that Obama’s critics are relying on is utterly false.

The people of Warsaw, Berlin, Prague and the like rose up against a system of government that had been imposed on them decades earlier by a foreign power. They had never accepted the legitimacy of Soviet rule and, often against violent repression, had worked to liberate themselves from it.

The Islamic government of Iran, by contrast, was created by the Iranian people themselves, who in 1978 and 1979 revolted against the repressive, American-backed Shah. An estimated six million Iranians joyously greeted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when, days after protesters forced the Shah to flee abroad, he disembarked from an Air France jet in January ’79 and ended his 14-year exile.

Khomeini then set about designing the framework for the modern Islamic Republic—with religious leaders, not elected civilians, holding the ultimate power—and his vision was quickly ratified through a nearly unanimous national referendum. This is a far cry from how Soviet communism came to the Warsaw Pact nations: In Iran, the people imposed Islamic rule on themselves, and still (by and large) consider the revolution their finest national hour.

This distinction is vital. Whereas the crowds in Eastern Europe were united in their desire to destroy their system of government—a goal shared by the United States—the Iranians who have taken to the streets (again, by and large) view themselves as protectors of the revolution and the system it created. As Fatima Hoghighatjoo, a reformist and former member of Parliament, explained to The New York Times: “The people inside Iran are not saying they want regime change. They are saying, ‘Where is my vote?’”

Americans might like to believe that, just like in ’89, the protests represent an overpowering thirst for freedom and democracy as Westerners define it. But this is not the same simple battle between Western democracy and repression. The masses in Eastern Europe may have been elated to know that the U.S. considered their cause its own, but the reaction of Iranians to a similar declaration now would be far different.

Moreover, America has (to put it mildly) an image problem in Iran that it didn’t have in Eastern Europe. Iranian history is marked by unwanted Western intrusion—the British plundering of oil fields, the C.I.A. overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953, the “capitulation” of 1964 and so on. Those who demand that Mr. Obama forcefully insert himself into the current drama don’t seem to appreciate that words of support from an American president can be used to rile up popular sentiment against protesters—something that was hardly the case in ’89.

The best outcome in Iran for the United States would be the annulment of this month’s election, the scheduling of a new vote, and the election of Mir-Hossein Moussavi. This wouldn’t be a panacea for American-Iranian relations, but it would be a clear step forward. And, despite the government’s post-election crackdown, it’s still possible.

The key is for Mr. Moussavi’s movement to remain free of the taint of Western influence—a poison pill that would send the clerical elites who have tentatively sided with the opposition flocking back to the government fold. The support of clerics with impeccable revolutionary credentials is critical to Mr. Moussavi’s prospects for success; it reinforces his claim that he is not trying to dismantle Iran’s system of government. Without them, a far more violent—and successful—government crackdown seems inevitable.

Mr. Obama clearly understands the stakes. Right now, the conflict in Iran is still an internal battle between two factions loyal to the revolution. But the minute it becomes a battle between Washington and Tehran, Mr. Moussavi loses. As Mr. Obama pointed out on the campaign trail last year, words do matter. And in keeping them to a minimum, he’s doing more than any of the tough-talkers to help those crowds in Tehran.

  The Last Thing the Iranian Reformers Need