Fiddling while Tehran burns nuclear fuel

David Meyers Former White House Staffer
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Middle Eastern students protesting in the streets, demanding their freedom. Oppressed masses chanting “death to the dictator” and calling for political reforms. Violent and brutal crackdowns by a despotic regime.

These are images we associate with the Arab Spring of 2011. But they also describe Iran in 2009 after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the country’s presidential election.

A democratic revolution in Iran could have been the beginning of the Arab Spring. But due to a variety of factors, including poor U.S. leadership, the Iranian regime is now undermining the Arab Spring and aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapon.

William Hague, Britain’s secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, recently detailed Iran’s escalating efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon. Along with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Hague has announced new sanctions and travel bans in an effort to focus the world’s attention on the imminent and growing threat from Iran.

But unless the world unites to confront Iran, these efforts will be of little value. Six United Nations Security Council resolutions have come and gone with almost no effect. And while there is turmoil between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, both men appear to be committed to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Furthermore, according to U.S. intelligence sources, we now have more proof that Iran is actively arming and supporting militants in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. If Iran produces a nuclear weapon, Iran’s power will become unchecked and it will spread more death and destruction throughout the Middle East.

But despite these developments, the world community is refusing to confront the Iranian despots, just as it did in the summer of 2009.

Why have we seen no action on Iran? The Arab Spring, war in Afghanistan and financial crises in the U.S. and Europe have distracted our leaders (though if Iran leads us into a nuclear war, will it really matter how much debt we owe?).

I’d also guess that the Obama administration fears bold action could undermine America’s support in the region. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, the United States has been most heavily criticized when it has supported dictators instead of democratic reformers (see Saudi Arabia). And it’s hard to understand the rationale for supporting NATO’s military effort in Libya but not making a concerted (though non-military) effort to topple the Iranian regime.

The world community should help Iranian dissidents topple the current regime. There is no doubt such a policy carries risks (the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 helped pave the way for the Khomeini revolution, for example), but they are worth taking. When the world refused to support Iranian democracy in 2009, the consequences were severe. If the world fails to act again, the consequences might be catastrophic.

History has shown that only bold action will succeed in bringing democracy to Iran. When the Iranian protests first flared up in 2009, it seemed possible that the ayatollahs might fall. This would have made people in Iran and throughout the world freer and more secure.

Human rights activists and politicians of all parties urged President Obama and Western leaders to support the Iranian dissidents, but President Obama and his counterparts initially refused to get involved. They didn’t want to destabilize the region or be seen as interventionists. They also claimed their vocal support might undermine the efforts of the Iranian pro-democracy activists.

It’s now clear that this was a terrible blunder. Partly due to a silent acquiescence from the world community, the Iranian regime used violence and brute force to squash the uprising.

In his 2009 Cairo speech (just before the disputed Iranian election), President Obama expressed his disapproval for President Bush’s efforts to help bring democracy to the Middle East. The Arab Spring has forced President Obama to reverse course and embrace President Bush’s freedom agenda.

According to President Obama, the United States will now “pursue the world as it should be.” One can only wonder what would have happened if President Obama had embraced that policy during the Iranian uprising in 2009.

But President Obama and other world leaders can make sure they don’t make this mistake again. They must take immediate and bold action to once and for all bring down the Iranian regime and stop its development of a nuclear weapon.

David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing a law degree at Columbia University.