Throughout the last campaign, President Obama spoke about his willingness to speak with the "leaders" of Iran. He did so based on the premise that we have a better chance of influencing Iranian policies through talks and incentives than by maintaining a unilateral isolation policy.
While such a position was a major progress in comparison to previous president's Iran policies, it contained a fundamentally flawed aspect of those policies: obsessive focus on Iran's nuclear program with the rigid goal of preventing Iran from enriching uranium for any purposes. Although many in the West -- including this writer -- continuously criticized this narrow focus, President Obama did not broaden his position for diplomacy to include human rights crimes.
In the meantime, those few of us on the left who criticized the President for not speaking up about human rights got criticized by some other liberals who, ironically, found it outrageous that the President was keeping silent on another human rights crisis: Darfur. The situation in Iran was not genocide similar to the one in Sudan, but suppression of dissent, jailing of journalists, sexist laws against women, and executions of thousands of juveniles, gays and Baha'is had made the human rights situation in Iran quite critical.
But the recent Iranian mock election and the subsequent ignition of the Green Revolution changed many of those perceptions. Many in the West and the United States began to see the Iranian Regime as the brutal and oppressive state that Iranians always knew it was. It showed its real character when it unleashed disproportionate force against nonviolent protesters, shot and killed tens of them, beat up old women with batons as their grand children cried, used water hoses and tear gas to scatter demonstrators, arrested, raped and tortured thousands more -- some still going on as this piece is published -- and cut the people's contact with each other and the outside world by practically putting western journalists on house arrest, cutting SMS service and jamming radio and satellite transmissions.
If these crimes were committed against white Europeans, the United States would have used its full power and leverage to defend the victims. But some in Washington have continued to stay in denial about the situation in Iran, continuing to naively apologize for the regime and even making the absurd argument that Ahmadinejad had actually won the election -- despite massive irregularities, the regime's preference to violently suppress dissent instead of counting the votes and those millions of Ahmadinejad voters were nowhere to be found. But these individuals now make up the minority of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, just as President Obama's more recent expressions of outrage about the situation in Iran -- although stronger than his previous statements -- were still mild in comparison to the much more aggressive and productive actions of European countries.
The Iranian elections have never been fair as all the candidates have to first be approved by the twelve religious hardliners on the Guardian Council. But what is important to understand is that the rigging of the elections in Iran was a tipping point that made Iran's presidential elections officially obsolete for the first time since the revolution. The Iranian regime has taken a sharp turn toward more repression, and for the first time, the Iranian president can no longer be considered the representative of the people of Iran by any stretch of imagination. In this context, President Obama's pre-Iranian election policy of talking with Ahmadinejad is no longer relevant.
This is not to say that President Obama should go back to the Bush policy of not talking. But his new diplomatic policy must include some critical and currently missing components:
1) Directly Talk with Supreme Leader: Speaking with Ahmadinejad now makes less sense than ever before. It used to be that while the Supreme Leader made the final decisions on all matters of state, the president was at least selected through some kind of a vote, regardless of the filter of the Guardian Council. That is no longer the case. The only reason that Ahmadinejad -- and not Mir Hossein Mousavi -- is the former's willingness to use military power to repress the people. Ahmadinejad cannot be considered any more representative of the Iranian people than any other Iranian on the street. It would make absolutely make no sense for President Obama to condemn the military coup d'etat in Honduras as he did immediately following the incident on June 28, but sit down with Ahmadinejad who no longer has any legitimacy. President Obama now must pursue any and all diplomatic efforts directly with the Supreme Leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei. He is not representative of the Iranian people either, but at least he holds all the key powers.
2) Coordinate Policy With Other Democratic Nations: Regardless of what kind of policy President Obama plans to pursue with Iran, its impact on the behavior of the Iranian regime will be minimal of he pursues it unilaterally. America alone doesn't have enough leverage with Iran. But what it does have is its continued status as the leader of the free world. The United States needs to work with Europe and other countries that have partnerships with Iran to pressure the Iranian regime to respect not only the human rights of its own citizens, but European diplomats in Iran, some of whom the Iranian regime has arrested based on absurd accusations of organizing or leading the protests.
3) Work with Russia: To the extent that there has been any pressure on the Iranian regime through sanctions and other means, Russia has played the role of an escape valve for those pressures. It has not only provided diplomatic support for Iran as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto powers, but it has provided the scientific know-how and trade partnerships that has rendered even some of the sanctions that are placed directly on the Iranian government ineffective. The United States has a lot of leverage with Russia on NATO (which was originally established to "keep the Russians out, American in and the Germans down" following World War II) and the pending project to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, which Russia is vigorously against. Like humans, countries, too, respond to incentives. How about using our leverage to create an incentive for Russia to work with the U.S. on Iran policy that is larger than that which Russia enjoys by maintaining close ties to Iran?
4) (Most Importantly) Prioritize Human Rights in Talks: American policy toward Iran can no longer be narrowly obsessed with Iran's nuclear program. President Obama must realize that as a legal member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran as the legal right to enrich uranium. If he wants to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, how about start by asking Israel to give up its actual nuclear weapons? What Iran -- a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- does not have the legal right to is to use violent force to crush dissent and impose Islamic law on all citizens. In addition, any deals with a repressive regime carries the risk of causing the same kind of backlash that American support of other dictators have had, such as Pervez Musharraf, or Iran's own Reza Shah Pahlavi thirty years ago. This position is of course not to be confused with the notion that President Obama should side with a political party or candidate like Mousavi against Ahmadinejad.
To those -- including President Obama -- who may believe that the Iranian people would consider American defense of their human rights more of an "intervention" than American directives on their nuclear program, I respond with a line from one of hundreds of e-mails I have received from Iranians since the election: "President Obama: Thank you for being mindful and not wanting to meddle in Iranian affairs... But why would we write our protest signs in English if we didn't want the West's help?" The idea that Iranians would be upset if the United States stands up in support of their human rights makes absolutely no sense and is nothing more than the product of imaginative thinking of those who seek the false comfort in non-action.
The recent events in Iran have had a fundamental impact on the psyche of Iranians, and both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton need to make a detailed and deliberate effort to reassess the extent of that impact and every element of the United States' policy toward Iran in light of these new conditions. Not doing so may be convenient in the short-run, but it can have an irreversible and negative impact on the attitude of the young and strongly pro-democracy majority in Iran.