Obama's Quiet Action Helps Iranian Activists

Here in Washington, there are too many self-proclaimed "experts" on Iran. When it comes to answering the question of how the Obama administration must conduct its policies relating to Iran, most of these experts line up behind one of two recommendations, both flawed. Those on the right believe the U.S. should abandon engagement, speed forward with full force to impose sanctions, and perhaps even strike -- or let the Israelis strike -- a number of Iranian nuclear facilities. Many of those on the left want the complete opposite: engagement, promises of detente and even normalization of relations with Iran's clerical rule.

The right's policy is flawed because any attack on Iran's nuclear program is precisely what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants. When I was in Tehran during the 2005 elections that put Ahmadinejad in power, I sensed the anger that President Bush's saber-rattling and naming of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" had caused among Iranians. And while it is virtually impossible to know the truth as polling is notoriously unreliable in Iran, it became obvious to many observers at the time that it was these kinds of hard-line policies that cut the legs from under the reformers and delivered the election for the conservatives in Iran despite a relatively solid record by the proceeding reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

The left's recommendation of engagement with Ahmadinejad is also problematic. The fact is whatever the conditions were before June of 2009, they changed dramatically after Ahmadinejad and the security apparatus led by Sepah-e Pasdaran -- also known as the Revolutionary Guard -- hijacked the election and used violence to crush dissent in ways that were unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. Some people have claimed that the Iranian regime is turning into a military dictatorship. The real question is what do these people think the Iranian regime was before? The Iranian theocrats have never faced the kind of opposition to its rule and legitimacy that it has been grappling with since last June. It is impossible to compare the regime's current behavior to its past actions because the current circumstances are unprecedented. The Iranian regime has been a military dictatorship for decades. The difference is that unlike in the past, the Green Movement has led the regime to use its force to the extent that it has for the first time.

While many -- including this writer -- strongly supported President Obama and engagement with the government of Ahmadinejad during the 2008 presidential election, that recommendation is no longer appropriate in current conditions. By all accounts, the apparent majority of Iranians are fiercely angry and do not consider Ahmadinejad as their legitimate president. As one reads Iranian blogs and websites and listens to Iranians who are in the middle of the ongoing movement, the majority of them voice the sentiment that President Obama should not engage with Ahmadinejad as such an engagement will only legitimize a regime that is going through its worst legitimacy crisis in thirty years.

Thankfully, President Obama and his State Department are keenly aware of these realities and, unaffected by absolutist recommendations from across the political spectrum, they are pursuing arguably the most intelligent and comprehensive policy on Iran of all U.S. presidents since the Revolution of 1979.

Part of the policy has involved offering an olive branch, which included offers of trade in return for more transparency on Iran's nuclear program before the 2009 Iranian elections. Some have claimed that these policies have not worked. But that judgment may be misinformed and premature. While the previous administration's attacks on the regime united the Iranian establishment, Obama's gestures have caused a fracture in the clerical establishments as the "business mullahs" -- the commercially minded clerics who care more about enriching themselves than forcing shari'a law, such as the former President Rafsanjani -- supported a less confrontational and more normalized relations with the West, while the hard-liners--social conservatives, war veterans, Basij vigilantes and the all powerful Revolutionary Guard -- wanted to fiercely defend the nuclear program at any cost.

Secondly, Obama's offers of normalization have made it more likely for Russia and China to cooperate on the United Nations Security Council as the U.S. pushes forward with tougher sanctions.

Last Monday, the Obama administration quietly took another brilliant action regarding Iran.
At the request of the State Department, the Treasury removed restrictions on exports of software and internet-based services to Cuba, Iran and Sudan. This means that U.S. companies can now export technologies that relate to instant messaging, web browsing, internet and communications to these countries. What this action shows is that the Obama Administration has been paying close attention to the role of the internet in giving Iranians an outlet to express their views and organize. With no access to the communication infrastructure in the country -- such as TV, radio and newspapers, which are all either state owned or heavily controlled -- the internet proved to be a fundamental tool that helped Iranians in their organizational efforts following the June election.

Nonetheless, the Iranian regime has too much control over the internet infrastructure. While private companies sell internet service, they are banned from providing service of faster than 128 kb/s for residential accounts, making it virtually impossible for Iranians to view many online contents and internet simulcasts of Farsi TV channels that are run outside of the country, such as BBC Persian and Voice of America. And the Iranian regime has also blocked access to thousands of websites from inside Iran, including The Huffington Post.

But the new lift of internet sanctions can allow American companies to think about ways to send high-speed wifi internet signals into Iran. Should that happen, it can free the Iranians from having to access internet through Iranian companies, allowing them to pick up the signal via wireless devices and accessing uncensored content at a high speed. While this may sound a trivial advantage to Americans, it will have a significant impact on Iranians' ability to freely access information and organize.

President Obama has vastly improved U.S.'s image around the world in such a short time in part because of his willingness to pursue diplomacy and engagement. But one should not assume he doesn't understand the nature of the brutal regime in Iran. This President is not naive. He understands that should the U.S. side with the unrepresentative regime in Iran the way President Carter did with the former shah of Iran thirty years ago, the current movement may lead to a freshly new anti-American regime the way the last revolution did. So while he is doing what he can to pursue peaceful means of holding Iran accountable for its nuclear efforts, he isn't fixated on the issue and cares very much about the human rights situation inside Iran. It's an intelligent multi-faceted strategy, and he deserves a lot of credit for it.