What Can the Obama Administration Do About Iran?

Over the last sixty years, Iranians have demanded human rights, democracy and freedom. They have done it repeatedly, and the U.S. government has failed to craft a policy to respond to this genuine and deep-seated demand.

In his speech in Cairo, President Obama acknowledged with regret the U.S. role "in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government" in 1953. This time, the Islamic Republic's ruling elite appear to have been caught in the act of distorting the democratic choice of the Iranian people. Just as the Iranian people remember with bitterness the interruption of their democratic aspirations in 1953, they are likely to remember 2009. The U.S. role in the unfolding drama on the streets of Iran's cities, and the perception of whether or not the United States stood for freedom, human dignity and independence, will have a bearing on U.S. - Iranian relations for many decades into the future.

At the same time, the administration has shown itself to be appropriately careful not to provide the Iranian leadership with a pretext to blame the unrest on the West or on U.S. policy. Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad have done it anyway of course, but as they have no bombastic statements to point to from President Obama or other senior administration figures, they have looked desperate and unconvincing. For example, in his speech at Friday Prayers today Khamenei dredged up the storming of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas in1993 and the current scandal about MP's expenses in the United Kingdom. These incidents seem unlikely to move the Iranian masses. However, this cautious approach will only take the administration so far and risks being overtaken by events in Iran at any moment.

The most interesting thing about the Iranian elections is not that the results appear to have been rigged - for reasons beyond the scope of this article, the elections were never free and fair to begin with - it is the brazen and chaotic manner in which it was done that should focus the mind of the administration. Ahmadinejad could have been awarded the election after a decent interval giving the authorities a plausible amount of time to count the votes, or even after a run off against his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Many people in Iran and around the world would have been no happier with this result, but they would have had much less basis to challenge the credibility of the election and the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's presidency. Ahmadinejad and his supporters, including the Supreme Leader, have given their many critics a stick to beat them with, and they have provoked unrest in Iran that can only be unwelcome to Iran's ruling elite.

Ahmadinejad's disputed victory has exposed fissures within the leadership and called into question the authority and the sure-footedness of the Supreme Leader. In the circumstances, finding a unitary authority in Iran for the U.S. government to engage with is probably impossible. Moreover, seeking to play favorites, or even more improbably kingmaker, in an opaque system where U.S. influence is virtually non-existent, is out of the question.

Nonetheless, consistency - avoiding double standards - matters in forging a credible human rights promotion policy, and Iran should not be given a pass because it is too difficult. Nor should there be a presumption in the other direction, that the Iranian system is especially or even uniquely evil and therefore it can be reviled freely with no thought to having a positive impact on the ground.

In an interview with Spencer Ackerman, published yesterday, leading Iranian dissident and former political prisoner Akbar Ganji, who was a critic of the interventionist pretensions of the Bush administration, makes a useful distinction between U.S. government support for human rights and what he views as illegitimate efforts to influence the democratic process. Ganji urges the Obama administration to stay out of the "democratic movement of the Iranian people," but to speak out against violations of human rights that take place.

This is a helpful distinction for the administration to bear in mind as it crafts an appropriately stronger response to mounting repression against non-violent demonstrators in Iran. The U.S. government did not spark the Mousavi phenomenon and can do very little to assist its cause. A frank admission of the limitations of U.S. power is probably a good place to start any U.S. message about human rights promotion in the Middle East. What the Obama administration can do is to speak out strongly and in concert with its allies around the world against violent repression of peaceful protest, the denial of free speech and of media access and the arbitrary detention of government critics, reformist politicians, student activists and human rights defenders.

The Obama administration should also remind Iran's leaders that the way they deal with this crisis of political legitimacy, and especially the way they treat their people will have an impact on the way the world interacts with the Iranian regime in the future. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may have calculated that they would be insulated from international opprobrium by the global tide of anti-Americanism that grew in response to the policies of the Bush administration. New policies and a popular new leader in Washington change this calculation. The Obama administration, if it pitches its message in terms of universal human rights standards, and seeks to work through multilateral channels, can bring the world along in rejecting an Iranian regime that denies human rights, freedom and dignity to its people.