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Leon Wieseltier’s Plan for Iran

‘Democratization and deterrence’

Marc Tracy
June 25, 2010
New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier.(Slate)
New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier.(Slate)

On Monday, Fareed Zakaria argued that Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement is unlikely to overthrow the Ahmadinejad regime, and that “punitive sanctions” only will harm the Iranian people. In response, today, New Republic literary editor and Tablet Magazine contributing editor Leon Wieseltier criticized Zakaria, a prominent foreign-policy voice, arguing, “Real realism consists of the recognition that nuclear peace and social peace in Iran will be reliably achieved only with the advent of democracy, and that since June 12, 2009″—when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad allegedly stole his re-election, prompting the rise of the Green Movement—”the advent of Iranian democracy is not an idle wish.”

With new Iran sanctions having just passed Congress (President Obama is expected to sign them), I decided to ask Wieseltier what else the United States should be doing to aid Iran’s Green Movement; where Israel fits in all of this; and how he feels about the annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland.

You publish an essay in the back of almost every issue of the New Republic. Why did you decide to publish this essay in the Washington Post?
There was nothing strategic about it. I had a piece in this issue, I published something on the Website, and I had something more I wanted to say, and I thought I would publish it at the scene of the crime. There was nothing calculating about it.

How do you feel about the sanctions against Iran that Congress passed yesterday?
The tougher the better, I don’t expect them to do the trick. Insofar that it’s a sign that Congress is finally being aroused, it is a good thing. But I think the Iranians have figured out ways to outwit any variety of sanctions.

I’ve been wating for a long time for Capitol Hill to become a voice on foreign pollicy, and it’s one of the scandals of this period, as a consequence of the enchantment with Obama and the fact that his party has control of both the executive and legislative branches, that Congress has been uncharacteristically quiet on foreign issues.

Absolutely! The proximate reason [President] Clinton sent troops to stop the Bosnian genocide after a lot had been completed was to avoid embarassment. But the historical reasons begin with the incessant lobbying of Senator Dole to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia.

In addition to sanctions, what should the United States be doing to encourage Iran’s Green Movement?
Meet with representatives of the Green Movement, instruct American international organizations abroad to do whatever they can to criticize and even humiliate representatives of the Ahmadinejad regime abroad. It’s an illegitimate regime, not just for what it does to its people, but for the way it re-came to power. The administration should authorize whatever technological measures need to be taken to protect the Internet and other electronic communcations of the dissident movement. Obama should make it clear regularly how much he admires the dissident movement.

What about the argument, which was best articulated in a 2007 New Republic article, that visible U.S. support for Iranian dissidents actually undermines their cause because they come to be seen in their country as in thrall to America?
I think that’s incorrect. That may have been the case at one point. There is substantial evidence that this movement wants the support of Obama, and was sorely disappointed by Obama’s diffidence, and feels somewhat abandoned by Obama, who was supposed to speak for the downtrodden of the earth. I think that most Iranians in the streets are not thinking about what happened to [Mohammed] Mosaddegh in the ’50s [when he was overthrown in a CIA-aided coup], they’ve got more pressing problems.

Obama has all this crediblity abroad. I don’t accept that his support would be frowned upon.

Where does Israel fit into all of this?
I think it would finally not be wise for the Israelis to bomb the Iranian nuclear installations. But you have to have a heart of stone not to understand why the Israelis consider the possiblity of a nuclear Iran a dire threat.

Democratization and deterrence are the answers.

Some have argued that certain cultures are fundamentally unamenable to democracy.
There was a time when Christian culture and Jewish culture weren’t ready either! You believe that democracy is a universal analysis, a human dispensation.

Concretely, in the case of Iran, there has been a substantial, highly educated, liberal, Western-oriented, devoutly modern, and substantial portion of the population that has been hungering for an open society for decades. Iran is not Afghanistan. That seems perfeclty plain to me.

Quoting and chiding Zakaria, you write, “Iran is ‘an oligarchy, with considerable debate and dissent within the elites.’ How nice for the elites. See you in Davos.” This means I have to ask: Have you ever been to Davos?
No. I have an allergy to carnivals of self-importance.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.