The great danger of Obama’s response to the street protests in Iran has been that he’d choose Iran’s thuggish ruling class over Iran’s masses on the grounds that Serious People don’t fret about human rights when grand strategy is at stake. ~Reihan Salam

The great danger of Obama’s response is not, as Reihan suggests, that he would express too much support for an illegitimate clique of rulers. It’s that he would, like Reihan does, transfer our sympathy for the protesters onto an imagined version of Iran, one in which the population suffers together beneath an oppressive “ruling class.” ~Matt Frost

Reihan’s remark is clever, but, as Matt makes clear, it is not really accurate. While I appreciate the Greenwaldian flourish of capitalizing the word serious, Reihan must know that a large number of supposedly Serious People seem to do nothing but fret about human rights and pretend that this fretting is a grand strategy. Reihan knows or knows of many of these people, so it should be easy to remember. There is a set of old diplomats from the last century who are still rolled out on television shows during every major event overseas, and it’s fair to say that these people do not “fret” much on this score, because they understand, however poorly in some cases, that foreign policy involves the pursuit of national interests, full stop. Most would-be Serious People do their best to make clear why, even if they consider themselves to be realists, they are not as callous and unfeeling as these people are supposed to be. If they want to be Really Serious, they will sigh and gravely intone about “the nature of the regime” making normal diplomacy impossible and, perhaps if they are on track to become the Most Serious they will earnestly announce our “responsibility to protect” the people of another country.

Matt’s reminder that there are real political divisions and genuine pro-regime sentiment among millions of non-elite Iranians is a much-needed one, but I would qualify his concluding remarks by stressing how so much of this contest is a contest over which elites will dominate the state apparatus. If Obama chose to side more openly with the protesters, he would not be siding with “the masses” against “the ruling class,” but would be for all intents and purposes allying himself with Rafsanjani’s power play inside the Iranian ruling class. Say what you will about him and his corruption, but Rafsanjani is not stupid–Mousavi takes all the risks, while Rafsanjani stands to reap the rewards if the play succeeds. If it doesn’t, he will bide his time until another opportunity arises. Oligarchs use factions of the people against each other in their competitions for position, and some try to identify their cause with that of “the people,” and this has gone on for ages. It now takes place in an era of mass politics, and so we have massive factions arrayed behind different oligarchs, which are deceptively large enough to be treated as being representative of “the people.” The tragic thing is that there are probably millions of Iranians who genuinely desire a very different kind of government and if they are lucky will get Rafsanjani’s clique instead. If the critics entirely had their way, Obama would participate in this farce by investing the triumph of one clique of oligarchs with some greater meaning.

Unfortunately, Reihan gets other things wrong. He writes:

Now, however, at least some of the engagers are coming to understand that the violence in the streets is clear evidence that Khamenei’s gang is less pragmatic than they enthusiastically believed.

This isn’t clear evidence of any such thing. I do wish we would stop using the word pragmatic as if it automatically implied something moderate and decent. Nothing has made it more clear that these are shabby dealers interested only in self-preservation than the last ten days. These are precisely the people with whom one cuts deals. There are people who are fanatical about religious claims because they are genuinely willing to sacrifice everything on their behalf, which ironically means that they can sometimes be constrained and controlled by the dictates of their own religion, and there are people who use religion instrumentally for control. For whatever reason, Western hawks have desperately sought to make the world believe that Ahmadinejad in particular and the Iranian regime in general were the former, while conveniently ignoring things like the holy status of Jerusalem that might complicate their imagined doomsday scenarios, but the last ten days have shown that they are the latter. This is a crew of shameless political operators who have no qualms about cynically using religious rhetoric, even going so far as investing their fraud with divine approval, in order to hold on to power.

Pragmatic is exactly what they are, which is why we know we can make a deal with them. They have made clear that their self-interest and the self-preservation of the regime are what they value. Pragmatic people can nonetheless be violent and cruel to get what they want. Being pragmatic does not mean that one is friendly, humane or pleasant. It is a means to acquiring what one wants, and what this crew wants is simply power. The truly great danger at this point would be to mistake the regime’s violence as proof of zeal and unpredictability rather than see it as the regime’s means of self-preservation.