A Big Card to Play in Iran

It’s an odd thing, but sometimes I could swear that there are two Irans. On the one hand, there is the Iran of the nuclear issue, the Iran analyzed by security experts, the Iran covered by the White House press corps. This is the Iran that made the news last week when President Obama revealed the existence of yet another hidden Iranian nuclear reactor, the Iran that will be judged by the U.N. Security Council this Thursday.

At the same time there is another Iran — a completely different country, as it were. This is the Iran of the democracy movement, the Iran analyzed by human rights activists, the Iran covered by the sort of journalist who takes covert photographs with a cellphone. This is the Iran that made the news more than a week ago when protesters turned a government-controlled anti-Israel march into a spontaneous anti-government demonstration.

The people who care about this second Iran are rarely much interested in the first one, and vice versa. The two groups sometimes seem almost antagonistic. When demonstrations exploded across Iran after the June elections, for example, many well-meaning people urged the American president to distance himself from both the riots and the rioters, at least partly on the grounds that any involvement might affect his ability to deal with the nuclear issue. Indeed, that choice seemed to suit President Obama, a highly rational man who clearly dislikes fuss, mess and emotional upheaval. At that time, the White House made a choice: It would deal with the Iran described by security experts and leave the other Iran to sort itself out. Iranian human rights issues, Iranian democracy — these were domestic matters, the president’s advisers concluded. They repeated their offer to meet Iran’s leaders.

Nothing came of that offer, of course, because Iran is not two countries. And the people who make decisions about Iran’s nuclear program are the same people who order the arrests, tortures and murders of dissidents. Indeed, one can learn quite a lot about how these Iranian decision-makers will behave abroad by observing their behavior at home. It is, for example, unlikely that a regime that publicly and repeatedly describes its opponents as American stooges and British spies is going to change its tune and cooperate with America or Britain any time soon. At the same time, a regime under immense political pressure and losing its legitimacy is not in a good position to break any new diplomatic ground and is therefore unlikely to end its nuclear program any time soon.

If that sounds bleak, it doesn’t have to. For the observation that Iran is one country also suggests that the West has some foreign-policy tools in Iran that it has not yet seriously tried to use. Many, many security experts have pointed out again over the past several days that we don’t have many good options once we officially declare that Iran plans to build a nuclear bomb. There are sanctions, which probably won’t work; there are bombing raids, which might not hit all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, given how many appear to be hidden in mountains; and there is war, which would be a catastrophe.

Very few security experts point out that there is another option. What do Iran’s rulers truly fear? I’ll wager that the answer is not sanctions and that it might not be a bombing raid, either. An economic boycott can be circumvented, after all, with the help of Venezuela or maybe the Russian mafia, and an attack on Iranian soil might help the regime once again consolidate power. By contrast, a sustained and well-funded human rights campaign must be a terrifying prospect. So what if we told the Iranian regime that its insistence on pursuing nuclear weapons leaves us with no choice but to increase funding for dissident exile groups, smuggle money into the country, bombard Iranian airwaves with anti-regime television and, above all, to publicize widely the myriad crimes of the Islamic Republic? What if President Obama held up a photograph of Neda, the young girl murdered by Iranian police last summer, at his next news conference? What if he did that at every news conference? I bet that would unnerve President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, far more than the loss of some German machine tool imports or Dutch tomatoes.

I do realize that many will roll their eyes at these suggestions and argue, as the Obama administration did over the summer, that an aggressive focus on Iran’s massive human rights violations would allow the regime to cry “foreign meddling” and attack its opponents as spies. But so what? They do that already. Given the potential for disaster lurking behind almost every other policy option, we have nothing to lose by trying.

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