I take my cue on this from young Canadian academics of Middle Eastern background who see themselves as Muslims with a secular and liberal democratic bent. They include Nader Hashemi -- quoted in Time this week calling it a "turning point" for "popular mobilization and discontent" -- and the irrepressible Jehad Aliweiwi. You may recall him for his battle with the Ontario government. They wanted to revoke his vanity licence plate -- JEHAD -- after 9/11, on security grounds. He fought back, refusing to let Osama bin Laden define that venerable Muslim term. He won.
Their source of optimism is the breadth of Iran's opposition. It includes not just students, women, liberals and secularists but pillars of the theocracy, including former presidents and the speaker of parliament. Ex-president Mohammad Khatami said: "This is not in the interest of the establishment." He spoke for the establishment, against the regime. With so broad an, er, coalition, sheer repression will only be effective to a point. The one thing that could derail it would be a plausible charge of foreign power behind it. That's how the Red Scare worked during the Cold War.
In 1946, for instance, in Quebec, Kent Rowley went to prison as a young labour leader, for fighting the repressive Duplessis regime. Also jailed there was Canada's sole Communist MP, Fred Rose. He'd been charged with acting as a Soviet agent. Kent smuggled a message to him asking if there was any truth to all the "crap about spying." Fred Rose signalled back that, alas, there was -- hugely undermining efforts by reformers such as Kent.
So Barack Obama's reticence on Iran makes sense. You can imagine him calling in his security team and saying, "Guys" -- as is his wont -- "what are we actually doing there?" Then hanging his head deeper as he hears about past and present covert U.S. actions in Iran.
I don't mean Barack Obama is not a Yankee imperialist. He is. He said in his campaign that the Bush policies harmed the ability to "project American power" globally. This week, a U.S. general in Afghanistan said: "We're going to seize the population from the Taliban and never let them go."
Iran, too, has its imperial motives, though they're more regional than global. It has an ancient imperial heritage. Saddam Hussein told the FBI that he lied about having WMDs to intimidate not the U.S. or Israel but Iran, which he feared. The Iraq war has been partly a proxy clash between Washington and Tehran over who will dominate the area. At this point, Iran is ahead.
Given these realities of global politics, is it possible to have imperial policies that promote democracy? Yes, but only sometimes, and in the case of Iran today, it works. Since both sides there agree on basic issues such as Iran's right to nuclear power, the U.S. can "afford," in terms of its own interests, to deal with either. And New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who's been a voice for engagement, is wrong when he says that talking to the regime now would dishearten the opposition. That's imperial thinking -- as if you have a role to play in internal politics. Let the Iranians sort it out.
What can be confusing is that aiding the growth of democracy elsewhere isn't about meddling in elections the way Western governments and foundations did during the "colour revolutions" in Ukraine or Georgia. It's about respecting the right and ability of local people to sort out their choices without the distractions created by outside interference, well-meaning or not. There's reason to hope it will happen in this case, even if it takes a while. That's probably why people such as Nader Hashemi are feeling up.