Iran's turning point

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

ONE WAY or another, Sunday's Ashura holiday in Iran probably will be a turning point in the struggle between an extremist regime and an increasingly radical opposition. At least eight people were killed when hundreds of thousands of Iranians turned out in cities across the country to face police and militia forces, who fired into some crowds and in turn were attacked and in some cases overwhelmed by the protesters. These were the largest demonstrations in six months, and they provoked another escalation of repression: The nephew of one opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was murdered Sunday, and 10 more senior opposition figures were arrested Monday.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clearly is betting he can defeat the opposition Green Movement with brute force. In the past week, security forces have attacked peaceful mourners at the funeral of dissident Ayatollah Ali Montazeri and violated the tradition of restraint associated with the Ashura holiday. The predominant chant in the streets, meanwhile, has shifted to "death to Khamenei" or "death to the dictator." More street protests can be expected when the movement's new martyr, Ali Habibi Mousavi Khamene, is commemorated.

In short, Iran's political crisis now looks like a battle to the death between the regime and its opposition. No one on either side in Tehran is talking about compromise. Nor does it seem likely that there will be a sustained respite from domestic turmoil until one side triumphs. That in turn means that, more than ever, the Obama administration and other Western governments must tailor their policies toward Iran to reflect the centrality of the Green Movement's fight for freedom. While diplomatic contact with the regime need not be broken off entirely, by now it should be obvious that it cannot produce significant results -- and might serve to shore up a tottering dictatorship.

President Obama shifted U.S. policy partway in the right direction when, during his Nobel Prize speech this month, he departed from his prepared text to say that "it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that" the Iranian protesters "have us on their side." He went further Monday with an admirably strong statement that condemned "the violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens" and called for "the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained."

There is, however, more that could be done to help the Green Movement. Russia and non-Western nations should be pressed to join in condemning the regime's violence. Sanctions aimed at the Revolutionary Guard and its extensive business and financial network should be accelerated; action must not be delayed by months of haggling at the U.N. Security Council. More should be done, now, to facilitate Iranian use of the Internet for uncensored communication. The State Department continues to drag its feet on using money appropriated by Congress to fund firewall-busting operations and to deny support to groups with a proven record of success, like the Global Internet Freedom Consortium.

The administration has worried excessively that open U.S. support might damage the Green Movement. Now President Obama has publicly taken sides, and the battle inside Iran has reached a critical juncture. It's time for the United States to do whatever it can, in public and covertly, to help those Iranians fighting for freedom.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company