Iran’s Guardian Council has affirmed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election victory and demonstrations have ebbed. Repression appears to have worked. Washington is likely to face an Iranian government even less open to political reform and more committed to a nuclear program—with “a more decisive and powerful approach toward the West,” in Ahmadinejad’s words. America’s options are limited: restrained engagement, with no illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime, is the best practical choice. Tehran poses one of the most important geopolitical challenges to Washington today.
Unfortunately, few Americans, including in the U.S. government, understand the intricacies of the ongoing political struggle in Iran. In fact, pervasive ignorance is but one consequence of having little diplomatic presence or other contact there for years. Moreover, Washington has brought many of its problems on its self. In 1953 the U.S. government terminated Iran’s earlier democracy by orchestrating the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh, Time’s 1951 Man of the Year, died under house arrest by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
For a quarter century Washington backed the shah’s dictatorship. After years of repression, Islamic fundamentalists emerged stronger than liberal secularists, leading to the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Then the United States supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after he invaded Iran. Later, President George W. Bush termed Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil” even as his administration destroyed the Iraqi regime which had helped restrain Tehran’s regional ambitions.
Senator John McCain unintentionally spoke the truth when he stated: “The president saying that we didn’t want to be perceived as meddling, is, frankly, not what America’s history is all about.” All too true, unfortunately. Meddling has been a constant of U.S. policy towards Iran.
This history continues to afflict America’s relationship with Iranians. Persistent threats of military strikes and cheery jingles about bombing campaigns—which undoubtedly would have killed some of the demonstrators whose cause the U.S. government now champions—also taint Washington’s call for democracy. So, too, the preelection admission of such neoconservatives as Max Boot and Daniel Pipes that they would prefer the reelection of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Not all Iranians are likely to see Washington as a disinterested advocate of the best interests of the Iranian people.
Americans should still encourage a freer society in Iran. Liberty is a principle that transcends country and culture. Former–Prime Minister Mir Hossein Moussavi uneasily wears the opposition mantle, but the recent election obviously was unfair: even the Guardian Council made the astonishing admission that more than 100 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots in fifty cities. The burden of proof was on Ahmadinejad to demonstrate that he would have won even without fraud, but the regime offered threats instead of evidence.
More important, the overall system is rigged, with tight control over who can even run for office. The most important policies are set outside of government. Many of the thugs deployed to protect the regime represent a parallel Islamic ruling structure—beyond even the theoretical control of the state. The regime has compounded its abuses by rounding up human‐rights activists, journalists and other critics. Washington has nothing at stake in the particular form of political system in Tehran. But Americans should take the side of individual liberty and representative government.
However, those demanding vocal public expressions of U.S. government support for the opposition fail to explain how doing so would actually promote reform. After all, Washington’s hostility to Iran’s Islamic government is in its thirtieth year. The Bush administration spent eight years loudly declaring its opposition to Tehran’s politicians and policies with little effect. Pious public proclamations risk turning into little more than selfish acts of moral vanity.
The Iranian regime already is pushing the line that Washington was behind the protests. Some on the Left speculated about Washington’s influence over the demonstrators: if the CIA sponsored crowds in 1953, then why not now? The Obama administration’s plan to fund Iranian opposition groups is likely to exacerbate such suspicions. Yet popular unrest, sometimes exploding onto the streets, has been evident for years. And the latest demonstrations were much broader than in the past: no outside manipulation could have brought out millions of people in the face of repression to demand that their vote be respected. Their courage speaks for itself.
But for the U.S. government to be perceived as interfering—yet again—in Iran’s affairs would retard rather than accelerate reform. Ahmadinejad has won on force but lost on legitimacy: Moussavi, fellow reform candidate Mehdi Karroubi, and former‐President Mohammad Khatami continue to criticize the fraudulent result. The worst thing Washington could do is turn the issue into a conflict between the U.S. and Iranian governments instead of one between the Iranian government and its people. And if Moussavi unexpectedly triumphed, the United States would not want to be tied to him either. After all, he looks moderate only in comparison to Ahmadinejad.
While unlikely to help unseat the current regime, expansive statements of U.S. government support and generous cash grants risk giving democracy activists a false sense of security. It wouldn’t be the first time: Hungarian revolutionaries confronting the Soviet Union in 1956, Shiites rising against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2001, and Georgians battling Russian forces in 2008 all appeared to treat American verbal endorsements as a precursor to armed intervention on their behalf.
Nevertheless, some American analysts who a few weeks ago were urging a bombing campaign against Iran—which Iranian dissidents say has played into the regime’s hands—unsurprisingly contend the ongoing crackdown is (yet another) reason to end engagement with Tehran before it has begun. Yet standing for human rights has never meant refusing to talk, else Washington would have had no contact with the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s China, Eastern Europe or a variety of third‐world dictatorships during the cold war. (Indeed, taking that principle seriously, the U.S. government would not have dealt with many of its own allies, including the shah, who routinely violated human rights.)
However, the nuclear issue is too important to leave unaddressed. Military strikes might only delay Iran’s possible development of nuclear weapons. Moreover, such an attack would increase Tehran’s incentive to develop an arsenal. U.S. intelligence does not believe that Iran has an active weapons program underway, though the mullahs may hope to create “turn‐key” capability; military action likely would remove any doubt in the regime’s mind about the desirability of possessing an atomic deterrent.
Moreover, war would destroy the democracy movement and solidify support for the regime. Worse, the violent, destabilizing consequences would ripple throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, starting next door in Iraq, where one hundred thirty one thousand U.S. troops remain on station.
Tighter sanctions would increase pressure on the regime, but it’s hard to predict their effectiveness. Certainly they are more likely to work in tandem with diplomacy, with carrots offered as well as sticks deployed. As America’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice put it, “It’s in the United States’ national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity.”
Human rights are important in their own right. But outside pressure is likely to have the least impact on changing Iran’s internal political system. Moreover, even reducing repression in Tehran would not guarantee a satisfactory resolution of Iran’s possible nuclear ambitions. After all, Iran first exhibited interest in acquiring nuclear weapons under the shah. Even a liberal, secular government might decide to maintain a nuclear option for geopolitical reasons.
In contrast, solve the nuclear issue, and there will be greater chance of improving human rights in Iran. Even then, ruling clerics will not want to yield power. However, reducing international threats while increasing international contacts would further weaken a regime now largely discredited by electoral cheating and brutal repression. In fact, sharp divisions have emerged among the ruling elite.
Reaching a negotiated settlement over Tehran’s presumed nuclear ambitions was never going to be easy. It will be even harder now, especially in the near‐term, with the regime attempting to rebuild its authority and legitimacy. But over time the effort is worth pursuing, if for no other reason that no other good options remain. Moreover, success would be the best means of improving human rights.
Moving forward in the aftermath of the post‐election crackdown will be especially difficult, since Washington doesn’t want to appear to accept the election results or the regime. So the administration should move slowly, probably much more slowly than it once had hoped. Washington has little choice but to eventually move ahead, however.
Those who would not talk to Iran would effectively abandon the best chance of resolving the nuclear issue and improving human rights. The United States should unabashedly promote the principles of a free society. But the Obama administration has correctly made caution the keystone of its response to Iran’s fraudulent election. Carefully calibrated engagement is the best strategy for encouraging a freer, and nuclear‐free, Iran.