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The Tiananmen Moment

On Dec. 14, 1825, following the death of Alexander I — who had seen off Napoleon — his brother, the grand duke, who had just taken the oath as Czar Nicholas I, was confronted by mutinous troops and rebels in Senate Square before the Winter Palace.

For hours, the czar stood at the end of the square as the crowd shouted for a constitution or for Nicholas’ brother Constantine to take the throne. Shots were exchanged.

As darkness fell, a czarist general rode up to Nicholas and said, “Sire, clean the square with gunfire — or abdicate.”

The cannons belched — and Nicholas reigned for 30 years.

Most autocratic regimes face such moments.

After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, East German workers rebelled, and were crushed. Rather than let the Hungarian Revolution triumph, in November 1956 Nikita Khrushchev ordered in the tanks. In August 1968, Leonid Brezhnev sent in tanks again to crush Prague Spring. In 1981, Moscow ordered Gen. Jaruzelski to smash Solidarity. Those communists did not shrink from massacre to keep what they worshipped: power.

In June 1989, Beijing, rather than let hundreds of thousands of dissidents occupy Tiananmen Square, waited for nightfall and sent in tanks and rural troops, avoiding the fate of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Authoritarian rulers who recoil at bloodshed to preserve their power have not fared well.


Louis XVI let the mob lead him away from Versailles, which he never saw again. When artillery captain Bonaparte asked one of the late king’s ministers why Louis had not used his cannons, the minister is said to have replied, “The king of France does not use artillery on his own people.”

To which Napoleon is said to have replied, “What an idiot.”

The Shah refused to use his army on the rebels and lost his throne. Mikhail Gorbachev refused to use the army to save Moscow’s allies in Eastern Europe and lost the Soviet Empire.

Though Gorbachev is hailed in the West for not being a Khrushchev, no true authoritarian would regard him as a great statesman.

Tehran appears to be facing its Tiananmen moment.

Hundreds of thousands are still demonstrating against Friday’s election and the regime that validated it. They are now being joined by crowds in cities where Baluchi, Arabs, Kurds, and Azeris outnumber Persians, thus imperiling the unity of this diverse nation.

It is hard to believe that this theocratic regime, backed by the Revolutionary Guard and clerics, will not do whatever is necessary to preserve its power and national unity.

This is another reason President Obama is right not to declare that the United States is on the side of the demonstrators in Tehran or the other cities — and against the regime.

Should this end in bloodshed, Obama would be blamed for having instigated it, and then abandoned the demonstrators, as Ike’s U.S. Information Agency was blamed for having urged the Hungarians to rise and then left them to their fate.

When Vice President Nixon went to the bridge at Andau to welcome the Hungarian patriots fleeing the bloodbath, many cursed America for having misled them into believing we would be at their side.

If Obama cannot assist the demonstrators, why declare we are with them? That would call into question the nationalist credentials of the protesters by tying them to a power not universally loved in Iran. It would play into the hand of the regime by confirming charges that the crowds are “rent-a-mobs” like the ones Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA used to dump over the regime of Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953.

Moreover, the alternative to the Ayatollah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a republic that will renounce Islamism and Iran’s nuclear program. It is ex-Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani, and ex-Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, all of whom trace their roots to the Revolution of 1979 and none of whom bears any great love of Uncle Sam.

It is Ayatollah Khomeini’s boys versus Ayatollah Khamenei’s boys. As Obama observed, in policy terms, there is no great difference.

For six days, the world has watched riveted as hundreds of thousands of Iranians peacefully protested what they believe was a stolen election, challenging the ayatollah who validated it just hours after the polls closed. For six days, the regime, born of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has been leaking legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of its own people, the Islamic world, the whole world.

Why interfere? Why turn a widening confrontation between the Ayatollah Khamenei and the people into a spat between the president of the United States and the president of Iran?

It is impossible to believe a denunciation of the regime by Obama will cause it to stay its hand if it believes its power is imperiled. But it is certain that if Obama denounces Tehran, those demonstrators will be portrayed as dupes and agents of America before and after they meet their fate.

If standing up and denouncing the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad from 7,000 miles away is moral heroism, it is moral heroism at other people’s expense.


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#1 Comment By Jack Ross On June 18, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

Go Pat Go!! When you’re spot on you are spot on!

#2 Comment By Septimus Waugh On June 19, 2009 @ 1:25 am

Thankyou for your sad and wise blog. Reading it made me wonder if there was any hope that Iran is not about to get something worse- chaotic revolution or bloody repression. There is always the example of the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia to provide comfort, and the Iranians seem to share the Czech traits of being cultured, educated and involved with the rest of the world. So maybe there is hope that the religious tyranny in Iran will blink, and that a democratic revolution will not produce chaos.
Obama has not interfered in the Iranian situation, or am I missing something?

#3 Comment By Barney Rebble On June 19, 2009 @ 8:06 am

And some among us have mourned the poverty of our intelligence-gathering sensory organs. The american mass media has so become self-satisfied with it’s dominance, and lazy (cheap?), that the random technology of the smart telephone is collecting more and better information than the media, or the country’s intelligence service.

And as the American public becomes accustomed to this new information input, we begin to learn the inadequacy of what the left calls jingoism, what the right calls bumpersticker sloganeering.

This is a continuation of the old, “I know how you feel” argument. Guy on the right says, “I know how you feel”. Guy on the left says, “You can’t know how I feel, without being me!” (And by extension, the Left would argue, “we” can’t know how “they” feel…)

The same dilemma faces human communication. When I say, “I know what you intended to tell me”, we can then argue over the intention of the speaker, the hearer, and the inadequacy of each word, sound, or gesture.

Those who yesterday were screaming anti-war slogans at the US, now might wonder at our caution, in word or deed, facing this dangerous situation that the Iranian dissidents face.

This young president is growing up fast, like John F Kennedy did, during the missile crisis and the bay of pigs. He is learning international language of the diplomat. A communication mis-step literally could cost the death of thousands of Iranians.

JFK said “we’re going to find a way to the moon”. Obama will be happy if he can find a way to close Gitmo.

Johnson said “we’re going to feed all poor people, and lift them out of poverty”. Obama will be happy if he can figure out how to send everyone to the doctor.

Reagan and Bush said, “we’re going to find a way for american business to prosper”. Obama will be happy if there is a way to see that the prosperity is more evenly distributed (at least we *hope* that’s what he is doing).

But the corrupt MainStreamMedia, has yet to figure out how to plug into the worldwide population that is itself plugged into the new mass-consciousness that started as the internet, and is evolving into the multi-technology social networking of the next generations. But blogs like this (TAC/BLOG), represent a “deep-think” portion of the increasing chatter of social networking, like we hear out of Iran.

And we will wonder, from a distance, what pain might be in store for them, …and for us. …And our “chatter” may even help form a reply to their cries for help.

#4 Comment By Septimus Waugh On June 19, 2009 @ 10:33 am

Ojalá que sea mejor en el porvenir, pero tengo miedo que quizás sea peor

#5 Comment By Fran Rossi On June 19, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

I wholeheartedly agree (who’dah thunk it?). For this one, American’s should peacefully watch from the sidelines.

#6 Comment By Fran Rossi On June 19, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

Americans. Sorry about that. (!!!)

#7 Comment By Sean Scallon On June 20, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

I’ve been critical of some of Pat’s recent columns, so when he’s spot on like he is in this one, one must offer effusive praise. Ultimately how a regime reacts to domestic opposition defines itself to people and the rest of the world. The regime certainly hopes that whatever blood is shed the protests will be long forgetten like those in China 20 years later. However, it should be pointed out that Iran is not China. The Islamic Revolution was build upon the foundation of those who protested an autocratic regime. To engage in similar tactics 30 years later certainly destroys the legitimacy of the Revolution. The Chi-Coms, by contrast, have always acted to exterminate their internal opponents. What they did in 1989 was not out of their character.

#8 Comment By WesTexas On June 21, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

Also attributed to Napoleon….”Never interupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake”

Obama is right to not give them a convienient interuption

#9 Comment By Phil On June 21, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

You say that the rulers of Iran have reached the moment where they decide to send in the tanks. It could be that the tanks are no longer theirs to send in. The order can be issued but it does not necessarily follow that it will be actioned.

If that is the case, Obama, with his ‘two of the same’ speech has already alienated the possible future leaders of Iran. Even if it doesn’t happen the speech will not have got him anywhere with tehe xisting administration. This was a classic case of ‘when in doubt say nothing’. Obama couldn’t resist saying something.

Way to go.