By Brian R. Parkinson, Ph.D.
Al Waref Exclusive
The recent events in Iran produced two distinct reactions in the United States. On the one hand, some political pundits (generally on the political right) thought that President Obama should take a firmer stance condemning the aggressive actions of the Iranian government following what was clearly a very flawed and fraudulent election.
They insisted that President Obama show his support for those backers of Mir-Hossein Mousavi by protesting the election results. Interestingly, these same politicians encouraged the use of American hard power by intervening militarily in Iraq. On the other hand, many political authorities (usually on the political left) argued in favor of taking a more measured stance on the election in Iran, allowing the protesters to express their displeasure with the Iranian government in their own right. For them, to give stronger support to the protesters would have served the regime's self-serving interests by allowing them to explain away the protests as a byproduct of western meddling in Iranian affairs. It was these men who advocated the use of soft power to achieve American goals in the region.
Nevertheless, why were the efforts of the protesters unsuccessful? One can attribute several salient reasons to their failure. First, the deleterious fiscal conditions were not acute enough to spark a successful revolution. While Iran’s fiscal shape is far from robust, it is not sufficiently egregious to warrant a revolution. Second, the protests failed to appeal to a broader swath of the Iranian middle class. What this tells us is that the economic situation will have to deteriorate even more before middle class Iranians risk losing their lives in order to topple the government. Finally, in every successful revolution, there is a moment of crisis in which security forces make a conscious decision to side with the insurgents rather than the status quo. In this case, the guys with the guns sided with the government.
So what should the United States do- Continue to reach out to Iran, and the broader Middle East for that matter, in terms of soft power. Even though the protests in Iran failed to reach the critical mass necessary to overthrow Iran’s precarious government, what has happened in Iran can serve as an example of the benefits for using soft power relative to hard power. Today, most Iranians are young (over two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30), and they, by far, have a favorable opinion of the United States. These youngsters are wired and in tune with the latest and greatest western trends, including music, drama, art, and technology. Whereas many of the older generation of hardliners in Iran still have a negative opinion of the United States. They distinctly remember the use of American hard power in the 1953 Operation Ajax, when Kermit Roosevelt Jr. and the CIA essentially produced a clandestine coup d'état of Mohammad Mosaddeq's democratically elected government and reinstalled the Shah. For them, this was an example of American imperialist bellicosity and caused long-term damage to the American reputation in Iran.
*Assistant Professor of History
Georgia Southwestern State University
Member of Al Waref Institute's Advisory Board