When questions about engaging with Iran come up at my talks and lectures I try to remind the audience that engagement is a two-way thing. Even before the present crisis I had seen little evidence the Iranian government was eager to engage with us. This does not mean we shouldn’t try – even now, we absolutely should – it does mean we need a back-up plan in case negotiations never get started in the first place.
The last few days have offered ample evidence that the people currently running Iran are more interested in scapegoating the West in a bid to cover up their own brutal actions than in engaging on any level. For all the discussion about whether the events of the last two weeks should alter President Barack Obama’s desire to ease America’s long cold war with Tehran, engagement is probably going to have to wait if only because it is hard to see the Iranian government showing much interest in it anytime soon.
First there were Supreme Leader Ali Khameini’s charges that the U.S. and Britain were behind the unrest. Then came President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s demand that President Obama “apologize” for his carefully-measured criticisms. Finally, on CNN this afternoon, the Iranian ambassador to Mexico blamed the CIA for the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, the protestor whose much-viewed death from a sniper’s bullet has made her the face of this would-be revolution. According to the New York Times, one Iranian newspaper is making the even more ludicrous claim that a BBC correspondent had her killed.
The strange thing is that a lot of the people spouting this nonsense may actually believe it. The Middle East has long been especially fertile ground for conspiracy theories – a tendency reinforced by the fact that a few especially wild-sounding plots (the Lavon Affair, Iran-Contra, the fact that Kim Philby really was a spy posing as a journalist) actually were true.
It is easy for us in the West to dismiss the sort of rhetoric that has been coming out of Iran as the credibility-challenged ravings of a regime that has little to fall back on. But anyone familiar with the Middle East knows there is a portion of the population inclined to view the world in this way. I suspect this sudden spate of accusations and conspiracy theories is mainly an effort to rally the regime’s base (in the councils of power as much as, if not more than, in the streets) rather than turn back the protests.
The thing to watch will be the degree of traction the charges achieve, particularly among the young. Just as Republican accusations that Obama is a “socialist” have lacked resonance with younger Americans who remember the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall only as boring stuff they suffered through in history class, so it may be that the demon-like United States conjured by the Iranian leadership will not resonate with the under-40 crowd who have little or no memory of the Shah.
The rhetoric of the last week is also a helpful reminder that Iran’s leaders may have the upper hand, but they are clearly feeling cornered and put-upon. Conspiracy theories allow them to retreat to a familiar world-view at a moment when, from their perspective, everything appears suddenly shaky.
For the people currently running Iran the question is whether the accusations of foreign perfidy will be enough to shore up their power. For America this will be a test of the “Obama Effect”. Will the president’s personal popularity, his visibly measured response and his oft-stated desire to deal respectfully with the Muslim World earn him the credibility and good-will America is going to need? As with everything else in Iran it is too early to say, but the result bears watching.