High Noon in Tehran

04/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iranians are bracing for violent clashes in the streets of Tehran today, the Islamic Republic's 31st anniversary. Both the government and the opposition Green Movement are calling for demonstrations to mark the occasion.

Reza Aslan, a PPI friend and contributor, says the regime's increasingly brutal crackdown on domestic dissent has brought Iran to the verge of civil war. Other observers fear a Tiananmen Square-style massacre that could cripple the democratic opposition, which flared up after last summer's rigged elections.

Meanwhile, Iran's rulers are promising rude surprises for their external critics, too. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warns of a "telling blow" Thursday, while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, threatens a "punch" for the United States and other countries that have worked to end Iran's nuclear program.

Such cryptic belligerence no doubt reflects the regime's desire to distract the world's attention from its increasingly shaky position at home. The mullahs' old tactic of whipping up paranoia and striking defiant poses against supposed U.S. or Western plots is wearing thin. A broad cross-section of Iranian society seems focused instead on the Islamic Republic's metamorphosis into an Islamic police state.

"The Islamic Republic is nothing but an economic-religious-military complex that applies its coercive power not through political institutions but through a military and security apparatus under the direct supervision of Ayatollah Khamenei," said Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at a congressional hearing last week. No "engagement" with opponents for this regime; instead, it has unleashed its vast security apparatus on Iranian society. Scores of anti-government protestors have been killed and hundreds more imprisoned. Prominent regime opponents have been subjected to totalitarian-style show trials, and the government has announced plans to execute nine protesters. The government is relentless in policing the internet, jamming foreign broadcasts and blocking contacts with the outside world.

Ahmadinejad underscored his contempt for global opinion last weekend in announcing that Iran will begin enriching uranium to higher levels, bringing it much closer to fuel that can easily be "weaponized." He also threatened, implausibly, to build ten more nuclear plants over the next year. In any case, Ahmadinejad's latest antics should have been an embarrassment to China, which has been blocking tougher sanctions because, it claims, the regime is ready to deal on enrichment.

How should the United States react to these and coming provocations? Not by intensifying efforts to "engage" the regime in talks focused narrowly on the nuclear dispute. Washington needs to broaden its angle of vision to encompass the Iranian people's struggle for freedom and democracy. Twice before, in 1953 and 1979, America failed to side with such popular aspirations, sacrificing our own ideals to the logic of superpower rivalry. It was a bad bargain then, and we can't afford to make the same mistake again.

Leaders of the Green Movement have made it clear they neither expect nor need America's help in their struggle. But without offering direct support to democratic reformers, the United States should be more vocal in defending human rights in Iran. And, together with our European partners, we should justify stricter sanctions on human rights grounds as well as nonproliferation.

And as Khalaji noted, "The threat to regional peace and Iranian democracy are the same: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)." The Corps is in charge of Iran's nuclear program, and is Khamenei's chief instrument for political suppression. It also funnels Iranian aid and arms to extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as Shia militants in Iraq and other Sunni-majority countries.

Of course, Washington should keep probing for signs of Iranian tractability on the nuclear issue. But the United States should be wary of doing anything now -- either by overreacting to its bluster, or rushing to engage in high level talks -- that would boost the sagging prestige of the Iranian leadership and the IRGC. Over the long haul, political change inside Iran is our surest guarantee of safety.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.