As we watch the riveting and disturbing events from inside Iran, bloggers and other commentators are already beginning to raise the political and rhetorical stakes. Over at the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan (whose coverage of the events in Iran remains remarkable) declared today that "the first and absolute requirement of all Western governments" is not to recognize Ahmadinejad as president.
I can understand the sentiments behind this view, and I hold no brief for Ahmadinejad or the clerics behind him. But how far is Sullivan willing to take this? Suppose the existing regime survives the current turmoil and remains in power -- which is likely -- and that Ahmadinejad winds up serving as president for another term despite what appears to be clear electoral chicanery? Are we to have no dealings at all with Iran, despite the many issues of contention between us and them?
And notice the double-standard at work: we recognized China while Mao Zedong -- a murderous despot -- still ruled there and maintained relations with it after Tianenmen Square. We cut various strategic deals with Uzbekistan after 9/11 despite its lamentable human rights record and we had numerous direct dealings with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. We remain closely allied with Saudi Arabia despite its treatment of women and the complete absence of democracy, and we subsidize Israel generously even though it denies political rights to millions of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and killed more innocent civilians during the Gaza operation than Iran’s ruling authorities have done since last Friday.
Obama's measured response to the events in Iran strikes me as more sensible: we can and should deplore the abuses of basic rights and the democratic process, while making it clear that the United States is not interfering and remaining open to the possibility of constructive dialogue. Given our long and troubled history with Iran (which includes active support for groups seeking to overthrow the current government), any sense that we are now trying to back Moussavi is likely to backfire. Trying to steer this one from Washington won’t advance our interests or those of the reformists.
Here's a hypothetical question for you to ponder. Which world would you prefer: 1) a world where Ahmadinejad remains in power, but Iran formally reaffirms that it will not develop nuclear weapons, ratifies and implements the Additional Protocol of the NPT, comes clean to our satisfaction about past violations (including the so-called "alleged studies"), permits highly intrusive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, and ends support for Hamas and Hezbollah as part of a "grand bargain" with the West; or 2) a world where Mir Hussein Mousavi -- who was the Ayatollah Khomeini's prime minister from 1981 to 1989 -- wins a new election but then doesn't alter Iran's activities at all?
This is hypothetical, of course, and almost certainly does not reflect the likely policy alternatives. But your choice of which world you'd prefer probably reveals a lot about how you conceive of the national interest, and the degree to which you think foreign policy should emphasize concrete security achievements on the one hand, or normative preferences on the other.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.