A New Way on Iran – by Jacob Laksin

The Obama administration’s policy of engaging the mullahs goes up in flames.


As the clock counts down on the Obama administration’s end-of-year deadline for negotiations with Iran, it’s timely to review what the administration has to show for its policy of engaging the regime.

Obama’s investment in this policy has been substantial. The president has personally reached out to the Iranian leadership, even going so far as to send letters appealing for better relations to the country’s unofficial leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. When demonstrations erupted this June in the wake of a blatantly fraudulent presidential election, the administration spurned a chance to take a stand with the thousands of opposition demonstrators who poured out onto Iran’s streets – and, when the streets became too dangerous, onto Iran’s rooftops – to protest the political injustice committed in their name. Not even grisly reprisals against democrats, dissidents, journalists and political activists elicited more than a tame warning from Washington. Obama pronounced himself “appalled and outraged” at the regime’s brutality, but revulsion did not translate into robust response. For all intents and purposes, the mullahs and their loyalist thugs were given a free pass to suppress all stirrings of dissent as they pleased.

That remains official U.S. policy. Recent weeks have seen Iran transformed once again into a battlefield between the theocratic regime and its militia enforcers on the one side and the democratic opposition on the other. Credible reports suggest that the latest crackdown has left dozens dead, even as a police-state dragnet has swept thousands under arrest. Prominent critics and democratic activists have been targeted, as have their relatives. The nephew of opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi, believed by many to be the true winner of the summer election, has reportedly been killed after being run over. The apolitical sister of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has been arrested. Opposition leaders who fall into the regime’s clutches face execution. Watching the bloodshed from his paradise retreat in Hawaii, President Obama has offered only symbolic support for the swelling ranks of victims. Despite condemning the regime’s “iron fist of brutality,” he has not lifted a hand to break its repressive grip. And so the crackdown continues.

From the administration’s standpoint, this calculated coldness to the human-rights atrocity unfolding in plain sight is the height of pragmatism. Granting official and active support to the opposition demonstrators’ cause, the argument goes, would only encourage the regime to discredit them as seditionist stooges of the Great Satan. At the same time, it would compromise the administration’s leverage on nuclear issues, making it more difficult to bring Iran to the diplomatic bargaining table.

Such convenient rationalizations fly in the face of recent history. If the past decade has taught any lesson, it is that Iran will not be peacefully persuaded to abandon its march toward a nuclear weapon. Supporting the suspicion is the ever-expanding evidence of the regime’s covert nuclear activities, including revelations, earlier this month, that Iran has spent four years constructing a “neutron initiator,” otherwise known as a trigger for a nuclear bomb. For those who continue to believe that the regime can be reasoned with – a dwindling number that nonetheless includes many in the Obama administration – Iranian officials have long been the bearers of bad news. When warned recently that Iran could face a new round of sanctions if it failed to comply with the administration’s timelines, Mahmoud Ahmadinehad offered a revealing retort: “We don’t care. We are not afraid of sanctions against us and we are not intimidated.”

The same cannot be said of opposition protestors, many of whom have been forced at risk of death into hiding or exile. But if the Obama administration believed that keeping its distance from the men and women being bludgeoned on the streets would spare them from the regime’s lurid slurs of treason and the United States from charges of foreign subversion it has tragically misunderstood the cynicism of totalitarian regimes. The fact that the opposition has received no official support has not deterred Iran’s Orwellian foreign ministry from decrying fictional “interference” in the country’s internal affairs. Nor has the mere fact of its absurdity kept Ahmadinejad from alleging that the mass uprisings in Iran are part of a play “commissioned” by “Americans” and – who else? – “Zionists.” So much for the Obama administration’s assurance that engagement has made it “difficult to demonize the United States and say it has been the root of all evil.” Modern Iran may have few exports, but it boasts an oversupply of anti-American conspiracy theories.

Small indeed are the wages of inaction. There is little indication, meanwhile, that the action that the administration is prepared to take, such as targeted sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, offers a realistic solution to regime’s threat, foreign or domestic. However defensible in themselves, sanctions will neither make the regime more pliant on nuclear matters nor relieve pressure on the embattled opposition. By contrast, meaningful support for the opposition – including but not limited to financial aid – could provide the kind of existential threat that Iran’s ruling powers have learned to discount from the international community. It would be a grim coda to 2009 if the administration that has presided over the largest government spending spree since the Great Depression was prepared to use taxpayer dollars to bail out all but the desperately needy.