Iran’s Democrats Deserve Full Support – Kasparov

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Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov urges President Barack Obama to take a tougher stance on the Iranian elections, arguing that pressure from the United States can tip the balance in Iran towards democracy.

Iran’s Democrats Deserve Full Support

Appeasing tyrants has never worked in the past.

June 26, 2009
Wall Street Journal

Regardless of its short-term outcome, the Green Revolution in Iran is already a tremendously important event. Iranian citizens are risking their lives to defend their votes and giving the lie to the idea that democracy cannot sprout in hostile soil without external influence. This is of great relevance to people living in autocracies, especially in Russia, my home country.

The Iranian dictatorship is harvesting the bitter fruit of its own policies of radicalization. For decades it exploited fanatical religious beliefs and hosted mass demonstrations. Now these forces are turning against the regime. Citizens who once chanted “Death to America” now call for the blood of Ayatollah Khamenei.

This is encouraging news, but autocrats learn from each other and from history how to hold onto power. Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sees not a great reformer in Mikhail Gorbachev but a leader who was too weak to hold the Soviet Union together. Others have learned from China’s Tiananmen crackdown the value of brutal force. So it is interesting that in the midst of the upheaval in Iran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a trip to the Kremlin.

Mr. Putin has a great deal riding on the outcome in Iran. With the Russian economy teetering, he needs a steep increase in oil prices to stave off the collapse of his government. So he has been working to increase tension in the Middle East and now sees the Iranian crisis as potentially helpful — if Ahmadinejad comes out on top.

According to industry analysts, Iran could produce up to four million more barrels of oil per day if foreign companies were allowed to modernize the country’s oil infrastructure. Rapidly increasing Iran’s oil output would likely force oil prices to fall. However, if Ahmadinejad retains power, foreign companies aren’t likely to be invited in and Israel may well feel compelled to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, which will likely drive up energy prices.

After watching the Iranian regime murder its own people in cold blood, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be able to tell his people that they won’t face an existential threat if Iran acquires nuclear weapons. The Ahmadinejad government has also lost its moral legitimacy and is therefore more likely to support a proxy war against Israel through Hamas and Hezbollah in hopes of uniting its people against a foreign enemy.

For Mr. Putin, the unknown factor in all of this is how the West will respond to what’s happening in Iran. It could give him pause if Iran faces penalties of real significance for using lethal force against nonviolent protestors. Surprisingly, European leaders are showing unusual assertiveness in condemning the Iranian regime.

But what has been flagging so far has been leadership from the United States. Only in his second statement, a week into the crisis, did President Barack Obama underscore the importance of nonviolence, though he still declined to support the Iranian protestors. I understand the reluctance to provide Iranian leaders with the opportunity to smear the protestors as American stooges. But can the leader of the Free World find nothing more intimidating than bearing witness when it is clear that the regime doesn’t care who is watching?

Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) and Fareed Zakaria on CNN, among others, have defended Mr. Obama’s extreme caution. Mr. Zakaria even compared the president’s actions to how George H.W. Bush responded timidly to the impending collapse of the Soviet Union and its hold on Eastern Europe in 1989. Mr. Zakaria explained, “Those regimes could easily crack down on the protestors and the Soviet Union could send in tanks.” True. But the Soviet Union used tanks to quash dissent when it could. Dictatorships use force when they can get away with it, not when a U.S. president makes a strong statement.

President Dwight Eisenhower might have learned that lesson in 1956 when he said nothing and the Soviets sent tanks into Budapest anyway. Likewise, in 1968 the Soviets cracked down in Czechoslovakia even though the West said little. Regardless of what Mr. Obama says, the Iranian leaders will use all the force at their disposal to stay in power.

There is no reason to withhold external pressure that can tip the balance inside Tehran. Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi is not an ideal democrat. But should he and his supporters win power they will owe their authority to an abruptly empowered Iranian electorate. It is reasonable to expect that the people will hold a Mousavi government accountable for delivering the freedoms that they are now risking their lives to attain.

Millions of Iranians are fighting to join the Free World. The least we can do is let the valiant people of Iran know loud and clear that they will be welcomed with open arms.

Mr. Kasparov, leader of The Other Russia coalition, is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal.