You can touch the tension in Washington as heart battles with head. One part of Barack Obama’s administration and, one suspects, of the US president, would like to join the international applause for the demonstrators filling Tehran’s streets. Pushing against this Wilsonian reflex is foreign policy pragmatism. As much as it holds up freedom as a universal value, the White House does not want to be seen as calling for regime change.
The strains have shown in the public pronouncements. Mr Obama has voiced concern about the allegations of vote-rigging and the violent reaction of the Iranian authorities to peaceful demonstrations. There have been gentle admonitions about the need for the Iranian regime to respect the democratic process. But there has also been an insistence that Iranians must sort out their own affairs. US meddling, the president has said, would be “counterproductive”.
Most Republicans have shown no such restraint. US officials lack concrete evidence that Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s presidential victory over Mir-Hossein Moussavi was fixed. They are pretty certain that the results were falsified, but they do not rule out the possibility that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad secured a genuine majority, albeit probably not by the announced margin.
No matter. John McCain has led the Republican charge, declaring that Mr Obama should roundly condemn a “corrupt, flawed sham of an election”. The US news channels have echoed Republican commentators declaring that the “rigging” of the election has strangled at birth Mr Obama’s strategy of engagement with Tehran.
Mr Obama’s reticence has also seemed to leave him out of step with some Europeans. Angela Merkel’s government in Germany, questioning election irregularities, summoned the Iranian ambassador to lodge a formal protest at the official violence. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy described the crackdown as a measure of the “fraud” perpetrated by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.
Mr Obama need not pay too much attention to the European rhetoric. Howls of outrage from Berlin and Paris are often in inverse proportion to their willingness to act. Think back to the Russian invasion of Georgia. Few were as firm as Ms Merkel in their condemnation of Moscow’s aggression. Mr Sarkozy claimed that it was his pressure that halted the Russian advance. And now? The Russians still occupy Georgian territory, and Germany and France forever argue that nothing should be done to upset Moscow.
Mr Obama’s Republican critics make a different mistake. Their assumption is that by seeking to isolate Tehran, the US can somehow bring Iran into line internationally. Three decades of experience and the disaster that was George W. Bush’s foreign policy say otherwise.
As far as Iran’s nuclear ambitions go, it may well prove impossible, whatever the west does, to prevent Tehran from acquiring a weapons capability. But one thing that can be said for certain is that an attempt to bomb its nuclear installations would not halt the programme. To the contrary, nothing would be more calculated to entrench the present regime. The hawks in Washington decrying diplomacy have no credible alternative.
Many of the differences between Mr Obama and the less excitable critics are tactical. Mr Obama’s carefully calibrated response reflects a consciousness of America’s long history of interference in the domestic affairs of Iran. The president also lives with the lethal association between democracy promotion and US military intervention that has been the legacy of Mr Bush.
Mr Obama is right that overt US backing for Mr Moussavi would hand a weapon to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad. He is correct also in observing that while Mr Moussavi has campaigned on a platform of domestic reform, he has scarcely proposed a transformative foreign policy.
Too much of the discourse in Washington has seemed to presume that Mr Moussavi is a western-style democrat eager to abandon Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its support for groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah. A notable exception in his own party has been Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the senate foreign relations committee. Mr Lugar has echoed the White House in warning that vocal US interference gives hardline clerics in Iran a convenient stick with which to beat the moderates.
In another dimension, though, the events of the past few days do expose the fundamental tension between idealism and realism at the heart of Mr Obama’s foreign policy. On the one hand, the president has rightly abandoned the democracy-at-the-point-of-a-gun zealotry of the neoconservatives. On the other he cannot ignore the reality that the west’s interests do indeed lie in the spread of pluralist political systems.
Mr Obama sought to address the issue in his Cairo speech. No system of government should be imposed on one nation by another, he avowed. But, if the US did not presume to know best for everyone else, certain rights – freedom of speech and a say in government, the rule of law and equal justice – were universal. America would support these values everywhere.
Practice, as events in Iran have shown, is never as neat as theory. The liberal internationalist impulse must be to offer moral support for those Iranians demanding their voices be heard. The realist says how can the White House demand of Iran levels of freedom that it does not ask of close allies such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia? The most lethal charge levied against the US in the region is that of double standards. It will not be an easy one to shake off.
As far as Iran is concerned the answer can only be engagement – with whatever regime is in power and, crucially with Iranians in all their manifestations. Tehran’s nuclear ambitions must be only one part of a much bigger conversation.
There must be no preconditions. The priority for Mr Obama’s administration must be to demolish the idea that the establishment of broadly based relations with Iran would somehow reward the regime. The reverse is true. The champions of modernity in Iran will thrive to the extent that the relationship with the west is seen to be one of mutual respect and mutual interests. Mr Obama has so far got this one right. He will feel no more comfortable for that.