The massive popular protests that have convulsed Iran have not
only shattered the already weak claim to legitimacy of the radical
regime in Tehran, but they have also undermined the Obama
Administration's strategy of diplomatically engaging that brutal
The regime has been vividly exposed as a ruthless tyranny
willing to deceive, repress, and kill its own people -- shattering
any lingering doubts that some may have had as to its true nature.
Consequently, the Obama Administration must recalibrate its Iran
policy and take a tougher public stance in support of the Iranian
opposition's campaign for greater freedom.
Engage the People, Not the Regime
The Administration undoubtedly hoped that bombastic President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be voted out of power and that a
successor government would be easier to negotiate with on thorny
issues such as Iran's nuclear program, support for terrorism, and
threats against Israel.
But Ahmadinejad's chief presidential rival, former Prime
Minister Mir Hossain Mousavi, is a leading member of Iran's
revolutionary establishment who shares many of Ahmadinejad's
goals -- although he would pursue them in a less confrontational
manner. On foreign policy issues, Mousavi would adopt a calmer tone
but would remain committed to Iran's nuclear program, which began
during his term as prime minister.
President Barack Obama has wisely not taken a position on the
internal power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, who may be
Tweedledum and Tweedledee on many foreign policy issues that are a
priority for the United States. But the President has not spoken
out adequately in support of the Iranian people's struggle for
freedom. Such advocacy is not meddling; it is an appropriate
defense of basic human rights that are being trampled in Iran.
The election travesty should be a confirmation for the
Administration that the only vote that counts today in Iran's
Islamist system is the vote of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei. While Iranian presidents come and go, the unelected
Supreme Leader retains the final say on all important matters. The
mass rejection of the official vote tally has destroyed the
illusion, carefully nurtured by the regime, that Iran's government
is a quasi-democracy.
In his inaugural speech, President Obama famously proclaimed,
"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the
silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of
history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to
unclench your fist."
Now that it is clear that the regime's fist remains tightly
clenched around the throat of the Iranian people, the Obama
Administration cannot simply take a business-as-usual approach to
Iran's clerical dictatorship.
Time to Get off the Fence
President Obama should drop the guarded language that suggests
he is triangulating between the regime and its opposition and come
down off the fence and on to the side of those fighting for freedom
and democracy in Iran. Oblique equivocations about the regime's
strong-arm tactics and the killing of at least seven unarmed
demonstrators represent a moral myopia that in the long run
undermines U.S. interests by signaling to the regime that its
repressive violence comes at little cost to its own interests.
As the President has bent over backwards to avoid "meddling" in
Iran's affairs, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has stepped up to
fill the vacuum of leadership, placing the blame for the current
crisis squarely on Iran's ruling regime. Meanwhile, Tehran has
accused Washington of meddling anyway.
Voicing support for Iranians struggling to reclaim their freedom
promotes American ideals and universal human rights and advances
American national interests. Ultimately, Tehran will cease to be a
threat to its neighbors, Americans, and its own people when
Iranians are free to pursue their own national interests rather
than the narrowly defined interests of the radical regime.
President Obama must make it crystal clear that the United
States stands with the Iranian people, not with the repressive
regime of the ayatollahs. He should strongly denounce the violent
suppression of the democratic opposition and the systematic human
rights abuses perpetrated by the regime. Moreover, he should call
on other world leaders to cooperate in pressuring Tehran to end its
persecution of political reformers, human rights activists, and
American Leadership Needed
Rather than abdicating leadership on the human rights issue in
an unseemly attempt to strike a deal with the outlaw regime,
President Obama should seize the moral high ground and rally
international support for effective economic and political
sanctions on Tehran. He should call on European and other allies to
impose the same level of economic sanctions that the United States
has imposed on Iran since 1995. Depriving Tehran of a vital source
of foreign investment, trade, and loans would maximize pressure on
the regime, which is unlikely to make concessions on the nuclear
program or its treatment of its own citizens unless it is convinced
that its hold on power is threatened.
Only strong international pressures that impose excruciating
economic pain -- not soothing rhetoric or misconceived attempts at
appeasement -- are likely to have an effect on the callous Iranian
regime. But so far, the Obama Administration has treated the Tehran
regime with kid gloves and received nothing in return except for
religious lectures, an accelerating uranium enrichment program, and
continued Iranian support for insurgents killing Americans and U.S.
allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Obama should speak truth to power and put America on
the right side of history. He should no longer mute his
Administration's criticism of a despicable regime in a vain effort
to diplomatically assuage it. Otherwise, future American Presidents
may have to apologize to the Iranian people for leaving them in the
clenched fist of Iran's clerical dictatorship.
Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies,
a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
For more information on Iran, see: Iran Briefing Room: http://www.heritage.org/Research/Middleeast/iranbriefingroom.cfm.