Iran Issue No. 1

By Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri
Monday, March 16, 2009

We are democracy activists who are passionate about our home country, Iran. One of us, Mariam, immigrated to the United States at age 7, during the 1979 revolution. The other, Akbar, arrived here in 2005 after a decade of leadership in Iran's oppressed but resilient student movement. Newlyweds, our love is bound by a passion for freedom, and we hold the highest esteem for America and its ideals of individual rights and human dignity.

During the 2008 campaign, we endlessly discussed Barack Obama's foreign policy intentions. We worried about how he would approach dictatorships and pursue terrorist cells. We also wondered why Obama, who benefited from the gains of the civil rights movement, did not speak much about systemic discrimination or the lack of civil and political liberties in many parts of the world, and why democracy and human rights promotion were absent from his rhetoric.

Nonetheless, Obama's victory led us to revel in the promise of renewal. His story testifies to the power of the grass roots to make government theirs. For the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this presidency is a threat.

Obama's popularity gives him the power and credibility to press the Iranian regime, not to mention dictatorships in Russia, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and elsewhere, to respect human rights and democratize. Yet some in Washington have urged Obama to abandon talk and programs in support of the Iranian people in exchange for piecemeal progress on the nuclear issue. With Tehran continuing to make progress on a weapon, it is tempting to look past the Iranian people's hopes for freedom and instead focus on the seemingly more imperative issue. But this would be a mistake. In fact, the regime would want nothing different.

Tehran's nuclear ambitions must be viewed in context. The free world does not fear a nuclear Iran because of the bomb; the world is full of nuclear bombs. People fear a nuclear Iran because of the radical Islamist ideology of those who would be the holders of such a bomb. Nuclear power can embolden a government, and Iran's ruling mullahs, regardless of their factions and infighting, are united in wanting to stay alive. The "Islamic bomb," as the so-called moderate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has proudly called it, can help ensure the survival of the regime.

Those in power in Iran are responsible for terrorist attacks throughout the Middle East, not to mention in Buenos Aires, Paris, Vienna and Berlin. They are fundamentally opposed to liberal democracy and its ensuing individual rights. They still imprison the young for having parties and listening to music and stone women to death for extramarital sex. In the name of God, they persecute religious minorities and imprison mullahs who speak of freedom. They still chant "death to America" at the official sermon every Friday and force children to do the same as part of the school curriculum. Drug addiction is common among large swaths of society. The regime's oil-rich apparatus is rotted by extremes of corruption and unaccountability. Like communist totalitarian regimes of the past, it seeks to maintain a facade of revolutionary idealism for the outside -- particularly for the liberation-hungry Arab world -- while its people endure the bitter realities of life under an ideological state.

Since 1979, successive U.S. administrations have "engaged" the Iranian government in negotiations while maintaining a myth of no talks. All the while, Tehran has avoided any real change in behavior. It has amassed greater military might and regional influence, and escalated its repression of the Iranian people and its patronage of Lebanese Hezbollah and anti-Israeli, anti-American Islamist ideology throughout the Muslim world. And along the way, it has managed to convince some on the European and American left of its harmlessness, and even of "Islamic" progressiveness.

Negotiation with Iran can bear fruit if the regime is dealt with holistically. Pressing human rights would bring integrity to any talks and prevent Tehran from using negotiations to obfuscate and avoid real change, including on nuclear activity. The fall in the price of oil and Iran's coming presidential election create openings for Obama to make strong demands on the nuclear issue as well as demands for verifiable political reforms.

The administration should be clear in any discussions and its public diplomacy that it expects Iran to hold free and fair elections, with no candidate disqualified. Obama should press for the release of political prisoners and for the regime to discuss its opposition's demands for constitutional and legislative reforms, and push it to again allow independent newspapers and for universities and civic groups to operate freely. This would signal to the regime and the Iranian people that the administration is not interested in a hollow, unjust peace but progress toward a free Iran, a model for post-Islamist liberal democracy and a peaceful force for the Middle East.

Iranians want to believe that the rhetoric of hope and change that marked Barack Obama's campaign included them. He must not let them down in their struggle for freedom.

Mariam Memarsadeghi is an adviser to democracy and human rights promotion programs in the Middle East. Akbar Atri served in the leadership of the Iranian student organization Tahkim Vahdat from 1997 to 2005. They were married in October.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company