My friend and colleague (and former TA!) Steve makes an excellent point about why the Obama Administration is taking the right approach in its response to the ongoing uprising in Iran:
We can think of the international response to the Iranian revolts in terms of sovereignty and intervention, and in particular, pay attention to how other states recognize the external sovereignty of Iran (following the principle of non-intervention) in relation to the popular legitimacy of the state among the people. Because political actors can construct sovereignty and intervention for their own purposes, both the regime and the opposition justify their actions with relation to the regime and other interaction actors, societies, networks, etc. In doing so, they discursively borrow and reinvent old narrative themes to mobilize enough support to overwhelm their opponents. How Iranian actors and interactional actors construct the socially understood meanings of sovereignty and intervention impacts their mobilization. This is why Obama refrains from forcefully supporting the Iranian opposition because it reinforces the narrative of foreign intervention in Iranian politics, one that specifically refers to United States and its support of the Shah. The expression of overt support to one side from a historically hostile hegemonic state might simply shift the focus of the crisis to new social relationships. Mossavi would be altercast as a collaborator and the regime would ride a nationalist backlash.
The problem is really how we recognize the boundaries of the Iranian nation, and discursively act on that definition to contribute to a desired outcome without our fingerprints on it. Hence, Obama says “If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.” Implicit here is consent of the people, which obligates the government to recognize popular discontent in the form of protest. The inability to do so puts the moral onus on the regime, as it fails to recognize the sovereignty of its own people. We play up our soft stance in the name of non-intervention and sovereignty, but of course made sure Twitter kept running, thereby aiding popular mobilization against the regime. Thus, we define boundaries and take actions across them in reference to a popular sovereignty that has yet to fully materialize. Paradoxically, we can only support the Iranian resistance by not directly aiding it, but only by constituting the conditions in which it can fully emerge.
I would add that we might even want to be a little more quiet about constituting the aforementioned conditions in the future — not that US involvement in things like the Twitter maintenance delay should be denied by the administration, but rather the utmost importance of tact in this very risky area of public diplomacy.
Our indirect assistance to demonstrators should be quiet and humble (and, in this case, very, very geeky). To paraphrase Jon Stewart’s mocking of Congressional Republicans’ criticism of how Obama has addressed the uprising in Iran — it’s (not) all about us! No prominent Iranian dissident has called for the US to take a stronger approach at this time, and several, including Akbar Ganji, have long argued that any support the US government tries to lend dissidents will only undermine pro-democracy forces in Iran. Even the family members of prominent dissidents arrested during the demonstrations of the past two weeks have emphasized this point.
Bottom line: I’m not braving the batons and bullets of the Basij, and neither are John McCain and the astoundingly hypocritical chorus of right-wing bloggers and pundits — Iranians are. If we can help them organize by keeping informal channels of communication open as the regime struggles to monopolize information, great, but let’s not publicly pat ourselves on the backs for doing that.
Writing this, I’m chuckling, because Steve would use a cruder term than back-patting.