What is our Iran policy?
The president has now begun scolding the regime in Iran for its brutal behavior. But alas, he is once again plagued by the same cautiousness that rendered him mute in June 2009 at the birth of the Green Movement and that left him continually behind the curve during the Egyptian revolution. The Post reports:
President Obama addressed the Iranian demonstrations Tuesday with a large measure of caution, calling on Iran's leaders to allow protesters to express their grievances but stopping short of calling for a change in government. ...
In his news conference, Obama continued to focus on the demonstrations underway and not on his preferred outcome, a balance he also maintained during the 18-day uprising in Egypt. Only in the final stage did he align the United States with the demonstrators' call for President Hosni Mubarak's immediate resignation.
In other words, far from being on the right side of history at every turn (as the president bizarrely asserted at his press conference), the administration's muddied policy and indecisiveness on regime change remained remarkably consistent over the past two years.
Meanwhile, the Iranian regime is unmoved by anything Obama might say at this point. The New York Times reports:
A day after the most significant street protests in Iran since the end of the 2009 uprising there, members of the Iranian Parliament called on Tuesday for the two most prominent opposition leaders to be prosecuted and sentenced to death for stirring unrest.
The call came as confrontations between government authorities and protesters inspired by the Tunisia and Egypt revolutions continued to unfold elsewhere in the region, with violent clashes in Bahrain and Yemen. ...
The offense of being "corrupts on earth," a catchall indictment of political dissent, carries the death sentence. It was not immediately clear whether the two men would be arrested. Both are under effective house arrest with their communications and movements restricted.
In other words, as Obama remains cautious, the Iranian regime grows more aggressive.
I asked Michael Singh of the Washington Institute how the administration might effectively aid the protesters. He responded by e-mail: "Political and human rights in Iran should be moved up the Western diplomatic agenda, and feature more prominently in statements, UN meetings, and negotiations with Iran. The U.S. should also engage with the opposition more energetically, meeting with representatives of dissident groups and hearing directly from them how the U.S. can help."
Why not stop talks entirely -- in essence, ostracize the regime? Singh told me that several factors "militate against such a position." First, he contends that "the regime itself -- especially the most hardline elements associated with Khamenei -- would be relieved if the U.S. unilaterally cut off contact, as they view dialogue with the U.S. as undesirable at best and dangerous at worst." Second, Singh points out, "As a practical matter, neither Europe nor our allies elsewhere seem prepared to cut off or even downgrade their own relations with Tehran, which means that the regime would neither be delegitimized nor isolated." And finally, Singh believes that "it may be easier for dissidents and reformists to meet with U.S. and other Western officials if the regime is also doing so."
There may be disagreement on everything other than our allies' unwillingness to break off talks. But Singh is precisely right that simply doing what we have been doing is fruitless and counterproductive. As he puts it, "Our current approach to engagement -- in which we meet only with the regime's hand-picked representatives at the time and place of their choosing, following a strict agenda and script -- is favorable to the regime, and we should shake it up."
However, it's not clear that the administration understands that belated words of support for demonstrators do not make for an Iran policy.
| February 16, 2011; 9:35 AM ET
Categories: Iran, National Security, Obama White House, foreign policy
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