The key to dealing with Iran: Press ties with opposition

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA promised last year that if Iran did not respond to offers of high-level "engagement" with the United States and negotiations on its nuclear program, he would seek international support for "crippling" sanctions against the regime. Tehran did not respond, and true to its word, the administration has been engaged in a vigorous-looking diplomatic effort this month to win agreement on a new resolution by the U.N. Security Council. From the outside, the results of its talks this far with China and Russia, the keys to such a vote, have looked mixed at best: China, in particular, has been public about its recalcitrance. Yet administration officials continue to express optimism that they will be able to bring tough new sanctions to bear.

We hope that's the case. Yet any new measures are likely to take months to approve and implement, and Iran has shrugged off the three previous Security Council sanctions resolutions. In the meantime, the administration is still dodging a larger question: whether Mr. Obama's two-track strategy needs to be overhauled in light of the unprecedented and increasingly radical opposition the Islamic regime is facing from its own people.

Many experts outside the administration, and many in Congress, think it does. The hardline clique that has emerged around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, they say, has lost legitimacy, and in any case is composed of those elements most opposed to accord with the West. The best chance of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capacity lies in a victory by the opposition -- and so it follows that the Obama administration's strategy should be aimed at bolstering the self-styled "green movement" rather than striking deals with the Khamenei regime.

To his credit, Mr. Obama has spoken out with increasing forcefulness against the regime's crackdown on the opposition, and many of the sanctions the administration is promoting center on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is both the sponsor of the nuclear program and the backbone of Mr. Khamenei's remaining support. But the president's advisers say he is sticking to a regime-centered approach. Mr. Obama's offer of engagement and recognition of the Islamic republic, they contend, helped produce the domestic political crisis; so more offers of accord could create still more pressure.

The problem with this strategy is that it keeps the administration focused on the least likely scenario for success -- a deal with the current regime -- instead of the more likely one, which is an opposition victory. It could cause the administration to take steps that undermine the green movement, such as conducting more negotiations with the government, while failing to do that which could tip the balance of power to the opposition. The latter would include more support for independent broadcasting into the country, and funding for groups that can help the opposition circumvent Iran's Internet firewall. Mr. Obama himself might make a difference by speaking out more forcefully and more often in support of Iranians' right to free speech, free assembly and justice for those who have been killed or imprisoned.

The regime professes unconcern about another round of sanctions -- perhaps with some reason. But it does not hide its terror and paranoia about the possibility that the United States would help to sponsor a popular "color revolution." If the object of sanctions is to punish the regime and force it to make concessions, why not begin to do what it fears most?


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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