Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

« Previous Post | Babylon & Beyond Home | Next Post »

IRAN: Is Obama administration dissing the 'green' opposition movement?

November 11, 2009 | 12:44 pm


As the United States attempts to grapple with Iran over its nuclear program, some worry that it will sacrifice the Islamic Republic's grass-roots opposition movement.

Karim Sadjadpour is an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He's regularly hobnobbing with Beltway policymakers and advisors as well as those within the kaleidoscope of think tanks issuing reams of recommendations for them.

He says that opinion in Washington is mixed. Though he himself believes that Iran's opposition movement remains a force to be reckoned with, some disagree. 

"There are certainly analysts in Washington, including within some branches of the U.S. government, who believe that Iran’s opposition movement is either dead or does not deserve to be taken seriously," he said. 

But, he said, "in numerous conversations with the key formulators of Iran policy in the Obama administration I’ve never found them to be dismissive or unsympathetic towards the green movement."

Still, for a whole bunch of reasons, the administration is also hedging its bets. 

"They feel they can’t put all their eggs in the basket of the opposition," he said.

For one thing, they worry that Iran's drive to master nuclear technology is moving faster than its move toward democracy. "The prospect of political reform in Tehran appears to be at best a medium-term process, while the prospect of Iran reaching a nuclear weapons capability is an immediate concern," said Sadjadpour, who was last in Iran in 2005.

But there's another matter, says Sadjadpour. The Obama administration worries that if it is seen as too vocally supportive of the opposition, as has been demanded by some commentators, it could end up sabotaging the movement.

"They’re concerned that enthusiastic U.S. patronage of the opposition movement could prove more hurtful than helpful to their cause," he said.

The administration's uncertainty stems in part from mixed messages it's getting from Iran and supporters of the opposition.

"Some think the U.S. could and should be doing much more, others argue that this is an internal Iranian drama and further American support would be counterproductive," he said.

Following the beatings, mass imprisonments and televised trials of opposition members, Sadjadpour said he thinks the administration could get away with being more outspoken in criticizing Iran for failure to measure up to globally accepted standards of human rights and justice.

"I have no illusions that raising the issue of human rights will compel the regime to have second thoughts about employing repression and brutality," he said. "But if we continue engagement while neglecting to talk about human rights, the United States sends the signal to the Iranian people that America is a cynical superpower willing to 'do a deal' at their expense."

While dialog with Iran is important, diplomatic engagement is not an end in itself, but a way to curb Iran's nuclear program and moderate its foreign policy, he said. 

Sadjadpour, for one, said he very much doubts that the current ruling establishment in Tehran seeks an accommodation with the U.S.

"As long as Ahmadinejad remains president and [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei remains leader, I am skeptical about Iran’s willingness to make and adhere to meaningful compromises on issues like the nuclear issue and Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said.

That doesn't mean the U.S. should revert back to the "regime change" policies and rhetoric of the Bush administration. In fact, Sadjadpour said he was convinced that that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would actually welcome a military strike. 

"It may be their only hope to silence popular dissent and heal internal political rifts," he said.

But ruling out war doesn't mean the U.S. should get all lovey-dovey with Tehran's current establishment.

"We should certainly refrain from employing policies that dampen the momentum of the green movement, or alter its trajectory," he said. "This means treading carefully on 'engagement,' broadening the conversation beyond just nukes and avoiding military confrontation."

--  Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Karim Sadjadpour. Credit: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace