By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 1, 2009
TEHRAN, Sept. 30 -- As the United States and its allies consider further sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fear that such punishment could have unintended consequences, strengthening the government's hand against domestic dissent and triggering an even harsher crackdown on political foes.
On the eve of talks Thursday in Geneva between representatives of Iran and six world powers, Iranian opposition leaders, politicians and analysts warned that new financial or other penalties would hurt ordinary Iranians rather than change the government's behavior.
Opposition leaders have denounced what they view as Ahmadinejad's antagonistic foreign policy, but they are in no position to criticize the previously undisclosed construction near Qom of a second uranium-enrichment plant -- the latest bone of contention between Iran and the West -- for fear of being targeted as traitors to a national cause: the pursuit of nuclear energy and technological advancement.
Although there is general agreement that the opposition is in a tight spot, some analysts argue that tougher sanctions could fuel public discontent over existing economic difficulties, thwarting the government's hopes of unifying people against foreign threats.
Former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran's main political opposition leader, called Ahmadinejad's foreign policy "wrong and adventurist" this week but came out against new sanctions, saying he worried that "deprived people" would pay the highest price.
"Sanctions would not affect the government but would impose many hardships upon the people, who suffer enough as a result of the calamity of their insane rulers," Mousavi said in a statement.
Government critics and dissidents, dozens of whom are on trial on charges of fomenting unrest after Ahmadinejad's disputed June 12 reelection, probably would come under more pressure if tougher sanctions were imposed, according to politicians and analysts on both sides.
"The government will say that critics of their policies are doing the foreigners' bidding" and will use sanctions as a pretext to silence opponents, said Ali Shakouri-Rad, a leading member of the opposition Islamic Iran Participation Front.
Amir Mohebbian, an analyst who shares Ahmadinejad's ideology, agreed that "pressure on the opposition and dissidents will greatly increase if the West imposes further sanctions on Iran."
Ahmadinejad insists that as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has an "undeniable" right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy and to enrich uranium to guarantee an independent fuel supply for nuclear power plants.
The United States and other Western countries suspect that Iran's uranium-enrichment program is aimed at ultimately producing material for nuclear weapons. The U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions over the program, and last week's revelations about the Qom facility have prompted calls for stronger punishment.
Up to now, the government has been able to count on support for its nuclear stand from even its staunchest domestic critics. Before the June election, Iran's nuclear case was a nationalist rallying point for various political groups, and many Iranians supported the government's defiance of the U.N. sanctions.
Now, however, some analysts said, additional, tougher sanctions might feed unrest in big cities over the government's policies, including a post-election crackdown in which dozens of opposition protesters were killed.
The country's middle and lower classes have already been hurt by a recession that many blame on economic mismanagement. Housing prices have collapsed, banks are low on cash and inflation remains in double digits. U.N. trade sanctions are damaging Iran's small import sector, which has severe problems insuring international transactions. And Iran's tech-savvy youths increasingly resent Internet restrictions.
"The government knows if sanctions do happen, it will be the biggest sign for the opposition to prove Ahmadinejad's bad management and their own righteousness," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a government critic. He said he expects Iranian negotiators to soften their approach to world powers in Thursday's meeting in Geneva.
Those closer to the government disagree. The nuclear case is nonnegotiable, Mohebbian said, and Iran is "dead serious" on the basics of its program. He predicted that Iran would focus the talks on building trust, not on suspending uranium enrichment, the main demand of the world powers.