Obama's Missed Opportunity in Iran

One of the most under-reported facts about the Iranian uprising this week is that the regime has been using foreign paramilitaries to attack pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets of Tehran. Many are apparently drawn from the Iranian-trained Hezb'allah in Lebanon. Buried in a Jerusalem Post article on President Obama's response to the crisis was the revelation that Hamas thugs are on the streets of Tehran as well:

Another protester, who spoke as he carried a kitchen knife in one hand and a stone in the other, also cited the presence of Hamas in Teheran.

On Monday, he said, "My brother had his ribs beaten in by those Palestinian animals. Taking our people's money is not enough, they are thirsty for our blood too."

It was ironic, this man said, that the victorious Ahmadinejad "tells us to pray for the young Palestinians, suffering at the hands of Israel." His hope, he added, was that Israel would "come to its senses" and ruthlessly deal with the Palestinians.

When asked if these militia fighters could have been mistaken for Lebanese Shiites, sent by Hezb'allah, he rejected the idea. "Ask anyone, they will tell you the same thing. They [Palestinian extremists] are out beating Iranians in the streets... The more we gave this arrogant race, the more they want... [But] we will not let them push us around in our own country."

The possibility that Palestinian extremists may be helping to crush democracy in Iran points to the true, fascist nature of Hamas. It also highlights the link between the hegemonic ambitions of the Iranian regime and the persistence of Palestinian terror. The two have become mutually dependent.

The Obama administration believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved before progress can be made in restraining Iran. As Harvard's Alan Dershowitz has noted, the president "has it exactly backwards." It is Iran's support for Hamas and Hezb'allah that perpetuates the violence on Israel's borders. Iranian nuclear ambitions embolden those groups and make them an even greater threat.

Political change in Iran therefore offers the possibility of killing two birds with one stone -- removing the threat of a nuclear Iran while cutting Hamas and Hezb'allah off from their primary source of weapons, training and money. If freedom triumphs over totalitarian theocracy in Tehran, the struggle for Israel's long-term security and for the democratic future of the Middle East could be won without firing a single shot.

Few predicted that an opportunity to free Iran would come so soon and so suddenly. The Obama administration believed the best approach was to appease the regime by offering talks without preconditions, withdrawing troops from Iraq, and conceding Iran's rise as a nuclear power. Outside the administration, an isolated minority argued for continued military and diplomatic pressure on Iran, the better to encourage the regime's internal opponents.

Obama has clung to his policy despite the radically changed circumstances and the opportunity they offer. Though his descriptions of the regime have hardened, he has refused to back the Iranian people's demands for freedom and democracy.

If ever there were a time for him to show what "tough diplomacy" means, it is now. But our eloquent president cannot find the words to stand up for hope and change.

Instead, Obama has bought time for the regime to rescue itself, declaring, "It is up to Iranians to make a decision about who Iran's leaders will be." That is the same excuse that was offered for years by South Africa's former president, Thabo Mbeki, as he allowed neighboring Zimbabwe to collapse into tyranny and ruin while Robert Mugabe rigged one election after another. In both cases, silence amounts to tacit support of the regime. 
President Obama and his congressional allies are in denial -- both about the inherent evil of the Iranian theocracy, and the opportunity that this moment presents. On Sunday, as protestors marched in Tehran, and as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech on the prospects of peace, Obama was on the golf course. The next day, he dashed to Chicago to deliver a speech on health care reform -- a crisis so urgent that his administration has yet to put its legislative proposals in writing. 

Already, France and Germany have been stronger than the U.S. in their criticism of the Iranian regime. Even prominent voices on the American left are calling on Obama to drop "engagement." But Democrats like Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who said earlier this month that the U.S. should not support Israel in the event that it felt forced to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, have fallen in behind the president.

Instead of confronting Iran, Obama is picking a fight with Israel. And the United States is missing an opportunity that may not arise again for decades. By standing up for the ideals of freedom and democracy that America cherishes and which he is sworn to uphold, President Obama could have hastened the fall of a terrorist autocracy, ended the threat of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and brought peace to Israelis and Arabs alike. 

We may long regret the consequences of his failure.

Joel B. Pollak is a recent Harvard Law graduate and the author of  Don't Tell Me Words Don't Matter: How Rhetoric Won the 2008 Presidential Election.