On War With Iran: Why the U.S. Must Speak Softly


In his speech to AIPAC, President Obama outlined his plan of combining diplomacy, economic sanctions, and multinational cooperation backed by the military option to dissuade Iran from going nuclear. He continued the discussion with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the following day. Critics have accused Obama of missing opportunities to effect regime change, particularly during the protests that followed the 2009 elections. But the U.S. has interfered in Iran's internal affairs before, with ultimately disasterous results. This history must not taint future regime change efforts, so the more quietly the U.S. lends its support, the better.

In 1953 the CIA played a role in overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, paving the way for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to assume power. The U.S. got a stake in Iran's oil revenues, at the cost of backing an autocratic regime that extended and retracted civil liberties as it saw fit, backed by the SAVAK secret police. This is the Iran that Ayatollah Khomeinei's 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew. 

Like many Americans, I saw the new government's roundup and execution of the shah's former associates as no different than the previous repression. But meeting two Iranians who were studying in New York City during the summer of 1979 exposed me to a different perspective. At one point, when they'd heard one American student critique the ayatollah, one Iranian remarked (and I paraphrase), "You take the right to discuss and debate for granted. We have just obtained it, and will do what we must to keep it." This left a lasting impression. These gentlemen had felt disenfranchised during the shah's rule, liberated by the ayatollah. How would they feel if Iran's regime changed again, even for the better, if it were backed by the same power that had given them 26 years of repression? I can't see that association helping the new regime. So, Mr. Obama, stick to your guns. We do need to "speak softly" when it comes to Iran, as one of many voices in the community of nations. Otherwise, our entreaties could very well fall on deaf ears.