Helping a Divided Iran Reform
New evidence of division and foreign policy paralysis within the Iranian government has come in recent days with contradictory announcements by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the country’s nuclear program. On Feb. 1 Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready to accept an international agreement to exchange its low-enriched uranium for fuel rods for a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes. A week later, after public criticism in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad “ordered” Iran’s nuclear scientists to begin enriching uranium to the 20% level needed for the reactor fuel to produce medical isotopes.
One of President Ahmadinejad’s critics was Hossein Shariatmadari, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative on Iran’s Kayhan newspaper. In an editorial Shariatmadari argued that “our dear brother Mr. Ahmadinejad ” was wrong to believe that “some countries have truly accepted the idea of cooperating with Iran.” Shariatmadari wrote that the West can simply not be trusted and Mr. Ahmadinejad was naïve to think that if Iran shipped its uranium abroad the West would keep its part of the bargain and provide Iran with nuclear fuel.
The criticism of President Ahmadinejad and his contradictory statements come as an expected confrontation between the government and the Iranian reform movement looms. Tomorrow, Feb. 11, is the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Reform leaders Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi have both issued calls for demonstrators to fill the streets to counter the parades, speeches, and other state-sponsored events that mark the anniversary. Government hardliners have vowed to show demonstrators no mercy and violent clashes are feared. Both hardliners and reformers anticipate that tomorrow’s events will be a major watershed that could either build momentum for reform or see a sharp increase in government repression to crush the reform movement.
What should the U.S. do?
What should the United States be doing in light of the confused and contentious realities in Iran? Not, unfortunately, what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did last Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Asked by host Candy Crowley what country in the world posed the greatest danger to the United States, Clinton replied, “You know, Candy, in terms of a country, obviously a nuclear-armed country like North Korea or Iran pose both a real or a potential threat.” Pressed by Crowley, Clinton clarified that no, she did not mean to say that Iran had nuclear weapons now but, she asserted enigmatically, “we believe that their behavior certainly is evidence of their intentions.” (She failed to tell viewers that the U.S. intelligence community reaffirmed last week in its annual threat assessment that Iran has not made a decision to build nuclear weapons.)
The United States in the circumstances that prevail in Iran should first do no harm. That means among other things not exaggerating an Iranian threat, as Secretary Clinton did, and not imposing the gasoline embargo on Iran mandated by legislation now in conference between the House and the Senate. Targeted sanctions against elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp involved in the nuclear program or against individuals responsible for gross violations of human rights might be imposed by the UN without harming the reform movement or reducing the chances for an eventual agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Broad sanctions such as a gasoline embargo, however, would strike a double blow at the Iranian people. Such sanctions would cause widespread hardship among Iranians and would strengthen the position of hardliners who argue that the West is implacably hostile to Iran.
The United States and other Western nations should be doing all that they can to undermine the Iranian hardliners’ assertion of implacable Western hostility. This is the most effective way to support Iran’s reformers and to reach a nuclear agreement. Instead of talking tough about imposing more sanctions on Iran, U.S. officials and others should be stressing the importance of reaching a nuclear agreement and signaling flexibility to achieve it.
Everyone needs an agreement.
The fact is that all three parties – the United States, the Iranian government, and the Iranian reform movement – badly need an agreement on Iran’s nuclear activities. The United States needs Iranian cooperation to prevent a resumption of major sectarian violence in Iraq as U.S. forces withdraw, and to bring stability to Afghanistan. In the longer term, the Obama administration needs improved relations with Iran if its new approach to the region and the Muslim world is to succeed. The Iranian government needs an agreement to demonstrate to its citizens and its neighbors that it is not a pariah state. And the Iranian reform movement needs an agreement to increase the chances for compromise and genuine reform – and to avoid a further polarization of Iranian society that might well lead to the fall of the Islamic Republic but only to see it replaced by a repressive military dictatorship. Will President Obama and U.S. officials have the political wisdom and courage to help put Iran on a constructive course to internal reform and international cooperation? The answer should soon be clear.