What the US should (and should not) do to support democracy activists in Iran

 In Iran

This post is part of Unite 4 Human Rights in Iran day of blogging.

People around the world were inspired by the massive protests that broke out after Iran’s disputed presidential election, and appalled by the violent crackdown by the Iranian government. It was hard to imagine that the beautiful, welcoming Iran I had visited just a couple of weeks before had turned into such a chaotic mix of spirit and brutality. Many members of Congress took to the floor and the media to voice support for the Iranians who had taken to the streets, some calling for the US to offer explicit support for the protesters. While many of these politicians were surely moved by the scenes from Iran, some of them (John “Bomb Bomb Iran” McCain most noticeably) seemed oblivious to the incongruity of their championing of human rights in Iran and their earlier advocacy of bombing Iran into oblivion.

The US approach toward Iran is far too often based on misguided politics rather than sound policy. Since last June, many of us in the United States have reached out for ways to show solidarity with brave Iranians—from changing the location on our Twitter accounts to attending marches around the country. As American voters, one of the most powerful things we can do is hold our government to implementing policies that will help democracy flourish in Iran. And they need to hear from us—much of the US approach is stuck in discredited policies of the past that threaten to backfire and strengthen the regime, while making both Americans and Iranians less safe.

Decades of tension with Iran, and constant Iranian accusations of western meddling, have made US positioning toward the opposition in Iran a delicate matter. Since the 2008 campaign, President Obama has demonstrated a far more sophisticated understanding of the US’s relationship with Iran than his predecessor. He started off with some important changes in tone—from his recorded Nowruz message to his acknowledgement of the 1953 coup in his Cairo speech. His administration has participated in negotiations to resolve tensions around Iran’s nuclear program. While ideally the US would engage in bilateral negotiations that would cover a broader range of issues, including human rights, the group talks with the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany are a step in the right direction. The success of the talks, however, is threatened now, and one of the most important things we can do is demand that the Obama administration stay at the negotiating table.  The alternatives, such as crippling sanctions and military actions, could strengthen the regime and deal a devastating blow to pro-democracy efforts in Iran.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s grasp on the diplomatic strategy seems to be slipping. To their credit, they have avoided calls for broad, unilateral sanctions that would directly impact the population and are more focused on targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the entrenched group intimately involved in the crackdown on protestors and Iran’s nuclear program. However, their understanding of diplomacy, as evidenced by their attempts to come to an agreement about shipping some of Iran’s enriched uranium out of the country, is lacking. Their attitude has been, “this is the deal—take it or leave it.” Diplomacy involves give and take, obligations and incentives.

Sitting at the table but refusing to budge is not a big enough step away from failed Bush administration policy. Many Iranians I met were frustrated with the US’s attitude toward Iran, the talking down and the double standards surrounding its nuclear program. A Mousavi government may have been easier to deal with, but it would not have abandoned Iran’s nuclear program at the behest of the west.  While the bluster and posturing of the Ahmadinejad regime makes things difficult, the US must maintain perspective about statements like Iran’s intent to build 10 nuclear plants and enrich uranium to 20%–nobody credible thinks Iran can build 10 nuclear plants, and 20% enriched uranium, if they even could make it, is still many steps away from a bomb. Foolish moves like building up a military presence in the Gulf only provoke the regime and provides it more excuses to crack down on dissidents.

If the Obama administration has strayed slightly from the right path, Congress is on another planet. Late last year, the House passed a sweeping sanctions bill meant to cut off refined petroleum and bring Iran’s economy to its knees, and the Senate followed suit in January. I met with dozens of congressional staff about this bill, and not one of them made a cogent argument for how these sanctions would change the Iranian regime’s behavior. There is ample evidence that not only would they fail, they would likely backfire and hurt the broad population. Opposition leaders like Nobel Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi and former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi made it abundantly clear that they oppose broad sanctions and their passage would hurt their efforts to bring greater democracy to Iran. But Congress didn’t let facts get in the way of their desire to be “tough on Iran.” Passage of this bill, by a whopping 412-12 in the House and a unanimous voice vote in the Senate, demonstrated political posturing at its worst. It is shameful that members of Congress who demanded greater US support for the opposition movement completely ignored their wishes in passing this dangerous bill.

While the US must be careful in its support of the opposition movement to avoid the appearance of interference, there are positive things the US can do to have an immediate impact. The US government can lift sanctions that impede Iranians’ ability to communicate via the internet, which has been critical to their organizing efforts. They can also look at other sanctions that affect the broad population, like the prohibition on civilian airplane parts (there have been several accidents in recent years, and I can attest to the fact that the Iranian airplanes feel pretty rickety). Members of Congress like Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) are promoting legislation that would lift restrictions on humanitarian assistance and ensure that any sanctions would be targeted at human rights abusers and not the general population. And in the long term, the US must negotiate directly with the Iranian government to resolve tensions and create a safer and more open relationship. We as citizens have a role to play in pushing our government to hear the real voices of activists in Iran, and act in their interest and in ours.

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