What does the Iranian election mean for US policy?

 In Action Alert, Iran

By now you surely have heard about the controversial results of Friday’s election in Iran. While polls in Iran are notoriously unreliable and the election results were considered hard to predict, the decisive margin of Ahmadinejad’s victory has raised serious questions about the possibility of fraud. Some analysts have urged caution and argue that western journalists overestimated Mousavi’s support by focusing on middle class and urban voters. However there is compelling evidence that the election results are suspicious (check out Juan Cole’s breakdown here), and the actions of the regime in the election’s aftermath—blocking text messaging, cell phones, websites like facebook and twitter—do not tend to follow an honest election. It’s clear from the massive protests in Iran, and the email exchanges I have had with friends and acquaintances in Iran, that many people there are convinced that the election was rigged and are taking to the streets to express their outrage. The internet was flooded this weekend with disturbing footage of police beating protesters. I recommend the National Iranian American Council blog for regular updates on the situation.

Many observers in the United States, who had hoped for a less inflammatory leader in Iran (though Mousavi was an establishment candidate and hardly a revolutionary, he offered a more conciliatory approach to the west), are disturbed by the news coming out of Iran and want to know how to best support the pro-democracy movement there.  The best thing Americans can do right now is put pressure on our own government and prevent them from using this election as an excuse to crack down on Iran.

The Obama administration is taking the right approach right now on a number of levels. First, while expressing their hopes that the election in Iran will ultimately reflect the will of the people, they are not taking an explicit position and allowing Iranians to resolve the conflict. When dealing with a government that uses American interference as an excuse to stifle dissent, and an opposition that will suffer from perceptions of American support, this is a very important stance. As Patrick Disney of the National Iranian American Council writes:

Before we Americans come rushing onto the scene with an offer of help for the process of democratization in Iran, we need to be certain that the parties on the ground actually welcome our involvement, and that it won’t in fact do more harm than good.

Human rights defenders in Iran are always the first to speak up in support of greater transparency and political openness in the Iranian system.  Their commitment to their cause is beyond measure, and the events over the next few days will determine just how much progress they have been able to make.  But these brave activists have also made it abundantly clear to policymakers in the West that we have to be very careful about how we get involved in the affairs of their country.

Hadi Ghaemi, spokesperson for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran agrees, stating, “I think it’s wise for the U.S. government to keep its distance,” and noting that a sign of support for the opposition could “instigate the cry that the reformers are somehow driven and directed by the United States, whether under [former President George W. Bush] or under Obama, and there’s no reason to give that unfounded allegation” any chance to spread.

The most important thing the Obama administration is doing currently is publicly stating that they will stick to their commitment to engage Iran diplomatically. In an interview this weekend, Vice President Joe Biden said:

The decision has been made to talk. Our interests are the same before the election as after the election, and that is we want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession and, secondly, to stop supporting terror.

The Obama administration was already facing pressure from members of Congress, pundits and outside groups to undertake a harsher approach to Iran; that pressure is only going to increase. Hawks will latch on to the controversy of the election to advocate sanctions, isolation, and even military action. Any of these approaches will not only fail to advance US interests, they will make things more difficult for reformist within Iran. Tension with the US, threats, and economic pressure provide fuel for the Iranian regime and give them an excuse to crack down on the opposition. Economic sanctions are not going to hurt the government; as Dr. Trita Parsi testified to Congress, sanctions hurt the middle class and make them more dependent on the government, impeding their ability to mount effective challenges to the regime.

This is one of the many times I am happy I don’t have regular access to cable news. I know the hawks from both sides of the aisle will be hauling out their incendiary rhetoric and rallying people to bring the hammer down on Iran. Mitt Romney is already blaming Obama for the election results, saying, “It’s very clear that the president’s policies of going around the world and apologizing for America aren’t working” (hasn’t he been completely discredited on foreign policy issues already?). Mark Wallace, president of United Against a Nuclear Iran, declared, “America and the international community must increase Iran’s economic isolation and Americans can take action today to do just that.” Our work to promote diplomacy has become even more urgent and we must make sure we spread the truth and drown out the fear-mongers. Contact Congress today and urge them to support President Obama’s commitment to diplomacy.

We need to help people see another side of Iran. Please watch our video messages of peace from Iranians and Americans and forward it to as many people as possible.

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