Last week countless protesters across Iran made yet another brave stand against their government, in an event that had political reverberations across the world. The continued demonstration of strength by the Iranian opposition has not only showed the increasing isolation of Iran's ruling elite, but also helped cement a dramatic policy shift that has been quietly taking shape in the White House. Rather than pursuing "crippling sanctions" against Iran's entire economy -- and crushing the middle class that makes up the backbone of the opposition movement -- the White House has decided to instead focus harsh sanctions on specific elements of the Iranian government, according to senior administration officials speaking to the Washington Post, LA Times, and Reuters. This is the culmination of a dramatically changed debate in Washington, and comes in stark contrast to the indiscriminate approach many in Congress favor. But it is exactly the approach that prominent leaders in the green movement and groups like the National Iranian American Council have supported for months.
The administration appears to have decided that its first rule should be to do no harm to the opposition movement, which is gaining strength and momentum despite six months of violent repression and intimidation. "We have never been attracted to the idea of trying to get the whole world to cordon off their economy," a senior U.S. official told the Post. "We have to be deft at this, because it matters how the Iranian people interpret their isolation -- whether they fault the regime or are fooled into thinking we are to blame."
Simply by surviving and refusing to be beaten down, the grassroots uprising in Iran is succeeding and forcing Iran's security forces to decide which side of history they want to defend. Thus, it is imperative that the United States not undermine Iran's best hope for a brighter future just to apply indiscriminate sanctions that virtually no one believes will succeed in curbing Iran's nuclear program. Instead, the administration's efforts are designed to pressure Iran's ruling elite back to the negotiating table, but without sacrificing the Green movement to do it. It's a strategy that implicitly supports the opposition, but does not rely on it.
But targeted sanctions do not mean toothless sanctions. Iranian government officials and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), with its many corporate subsidiaries and front companies, will be the primary subject of these sanctions. Newsweek recently reported "U.S. and European officials have accumulated a lot more intelligence in recent years about the Guards' business activities--including which IRGC officials have investments and where."
The administration's decision to pursue these targeted sanctions means the administration will resist the indiscriminate sanctions racing through Congress, according to the news reports. While the administration will need to show some backbone to keep Congress from undermining the more sophisticated strategy being put together by the White House, the debate in Washington has changed dramatically in the past six months. The bravery of the Iranian people, shared with the world through YouTube and Twitter, speaks for itself. Meanwhile, groups like the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and its allies have been pounding home the message that the United States cannot say it supports the Iranian people while trying simultaneously to impoverish them or deprive them of winter heating oil.
NIAC President Trita Parsi provided testimony to Congress explaining the flaw in the thinking of those who think that inflicting more economic pain on the Iranian people would be a good thing, as if they weren't already suffering enough at the hands of their government or weren't upset enough about the blood on the regime's hands:
What caused Iranians to rise up in June was not economic hardship, but dashed hopes in anger over the fraudulent election. Whereas economic hardships have prompted sporadic protests, hope has brought millions into the streets in a sustained manner. Experience shows that when broad, untargeted sanctions hitting the Iranian people are adopted, the first casualty is hope. Economic misery breeds despair, which in turn kills people's faith in their ability to bring about change. The result is political apathy, which only cements the status quo and serves the interest of the political faction around Ayatollah Khamenei.
Even Congress is responding to that message. Shortly before Congress adjourned for Christmas, Representatives Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Jim Moran (D-VA) introduced the Stand With the Iranian People Act and the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act, respectively. Both these bills make very clear that sanctions that do not target the Iranian government and instead needlessly hurt the Iranian people aren't just wrong - they are against U.S. national interests and hurt the Iranian people's struggle for democracy. The White House understands this, and is showing tremendous leadership in heeding its own better judgment, rather than kowtowing to the forces of the status quo.