American "Yes We Can" Showed Iranian Youth They Could, Too

TAU Iran expert David Menashri sees cause-and-effect in Iranian election's saga

Prof. David Menashri, Tel Aviv University
Prof. David Menashri

It's no coincidence, says Prof. David Menashri, the internationally-known Iranian affairs scholar and analyst who heads Tel Aviv University's Center of Iranian Studies. Every time Americans elect a president with human rights high on his agenda, a wave of change ripples through Iran. It's happened three times in recent history, and now — with an Obama administration — a fourth wave is underway.

"Iran is a country of serial revolutions," says Prof. Menashri, "with citizens repeatedly taking responsibility for changing the government's policy or even the ruling system by mass popular participation. And if we look at modern history, there is a real correlation between Iranian uprisings and American politics.

"They might not realize it, but when Americans go to the polls, their influence stretches far beyond the boundaries of the United States." Look at the effect on Iran since World War II, when the U.S. became deeply involved in Iran, Menashri noted, citing the human-rights-centric governments of Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter — all of which parallel uprisings in Iran, in 1951-53, 1961-63 and 1977-79.

Growing effect of "Obama-ism"

"The emergence of Obama — out of nowhere — sparked popular unrest in Iran in different ways. For one, it triggered the hope that 'Yes, they can' too," Menashri added, observing that the uprising in recent weeks reflects a belief among Iranian reformists that they will have backing from Washington if they press for greater freedom in their country.

Another catalyst leading to Iran's recent deadly demonstrations may have been Obama's offer of dialogue with Iran. "When the U.S. president offers his hand in friendship, doubts creep in. People start to question Ahmadinejad's stubborn rejectionist policy." This fits a pattern he sees emerging throughout the Middle East — "a growing trend toward Obama-ism." In Israel, some consider Tzipi Livni their Obama, while some Iranians see Obama in Mir-Hosein Mousavi.

Walking a tightrope

If the U.S. election gave heart to Iranians who are struggling for freedom and change, they were by and large disappointed. They expected indirect support or endorsement from Obama for their quest for freedom, but when a response came, some saw it as too little, too late.

"America is in a difficult situation," noted Prof. Menashri. "In 1953, U.S. involvement in Iranian affairs was a disaster in a long run. But in 1978, America was less directly involved, and the Iranian people were able to topple the Shah. If Obama had forcefully supported the young Iranian protesters, it could have been the kiss of death for the reform movement. Still there was an expectation for some sort of support, and earlier than it came."

The result is a double-edged sword. Prof. Menashri believes the recent uprising has negatively affected President Obama's ability to pursue his policies and enter into a meaningful dialogue with Iran's president in the short run, because Ahmadinejad has lost much of his legitimacy and, at least at this stage, seems to be adhering to an even more militant posture.

Post-election Iran continues to nurse a deep and open wound. Iran in late June 2009 is a different Iran from just a few weeks before. Prof. Menashri also noted that it is not clear where the post-election turmoil will lead Iran, but even if things seem quiet on the ground, the nation is boiling beneath the surface.

Clouding more explosive issues

Perhaps what is even more worrying for the outside world, the uprisings have diverted the international media from focusing on Iran's nuclear advances. "Despite the uprisings," Menashri emphasized, "their scientists have not stopped working on the Iranian nuclear program. It's out of the international eye, but Iran's nuclear clock is ticking."

Born in Iran, Prof. David Menashri is recognized as one of the world's leading analysts of Iranian history and politics, and is frequently consulted by governments and the international news media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.


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