The Nobel Committee’s decision last week to award its famous peace prize to President Barack Obama came as a surprise to his opponents and proponents alike. But perhaps no one was more surprised by the selection than the Iranian people, many of whom feel they were betrayed by the American president at a pivotal moment for their country.
In the wake of the disputed Iranian presidential election this June, Iranians waited patiently to see the Obama administration throw its support behind the dynamic opposition demonstrators who defied intimidation and brutal harassment by the regime to gather in the streets of Iran. The support never came. Now, Obama, having declined to take sides between the totalitarian government and its democratic opposition, has been given an international award intended to honor those who have made significant contributions to the cause of peace.
The poignancy of the June uprisings cannot be overemphasized. After 30 years of hesitating to utter a word about politics to friends, neighbors, and even family members who could turn out to be government informants, Iranians were finally united in their fight for freedom. Yet, they looked across the ocean, and found no friend on the other side. Naturally, Iranians feel let down. What they wanted from the American government was moral support, a declaration of solidarity with the people of Iran. What they got was silence.
If the Obama administration had supported the Iranian people, it could have accomplished two major goals. First, it could have gained a crucial ally in the disenchanted Iranian people and brought strong pressure to bear on their repressive government. By supporting the Iranian struggle for freedom, moreover, the U.S. would have taken a stand for democracy and human rights, and backed the Iranian people in a fight for their lives and their future. Instead, the Obama administration did nothing.
The timing of the administration’s non-action could not have been worse. In failing to condemn Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s corrupt power grab, President Obama helped legitimize the hard-liner as the rightful Iranian leader – a slap in the face to the Iranian people. Instead of standing up against violence and injustice, the administration gave the Islamic regime the message that its crimes against innocent people can and will be overlooked.
All this is in keeping with the Obama administration’s plan to engage the Iranian regime in direct talks. But the strategy is problematic on several levels. If the regime knows that the Obama administration will accept talks without preconditions, it has no incentive to improve its intolerant stance against their people or to halt nuclear arms proliferation. Thus, the most likely outcome of such talks would be to further bolster a regime that many Iranians consider illegitimate.
The Obama administration may have thought that its conciliatory stance would moderate the regime’s behavior. If so, it miscalculated. Already, the government has belittled Obama for receiving his Nobel Prize. According to Iran’s state-run Press TV, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that the choice of Obama was “overly premature” and made in “haste.” Typically, Mottaki than launched a gratuitous attack on the United States and Israel, asserting that the right time for Obama to receive such an award would be when “occupation” forces are fully withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestinian rights are respected.
It is typical for the Islamic regime to shift focus on to others instead of acknowledging the plight of their own people. Yet only a month ago, a new chant that was heard in the streets of Iran during Quds Day, a day designed to contest Israel’s existence and to celebrate anti-Zionistic sentiment: “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon… My life is dedicated to Iran!” Contrary to the government propaganda, Iranians are not preoccupied with the fate of Palestinians or enthusiastic about the Iranian nuclear plan. They want freedom, and they want it now.
The democratic momentum in Iran is still alive. I recently met with a visiting Iranian protest leader. He described an energetic and optimistic environment of young Iranians fueled by anger and resentment toward their government and now, toward the un-supportive U.S. and the Islamic Republic’s accomplices—China and Russia. The local leaders of the “green revolution” in Iran have since become independent of Mir-Hossein Moussavi and no longer see him as a relevant figure in their objective.
The bottom line is that there is still a chance for the people of Iran to be successful and instrumental in bringing about political change. And there is still a chance for President Obama to earn the award that many Iranians believe he did not deserve.