What if the Obama administration fully sided with Iran's Green Movement?

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

A YEAR ago on Saturday, a movement was born that offers the best chance of ending the threat posed by Iran's support for terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons. Millions of Iranians turned out to vote against the extremist government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a presidential election -- and were outraged when the regime announced an improbable landslide victory for the incumbent. Since then, what is now known as the Green Movement has swelled into the most consequential challenge ever mounted to Iran's Islamic theocracy. Through sheer brutality -- shootings, mass arrests, tortures, rapes and executions -- the regime has mostly driven it off the streets; leaders called off demonstrations that had been planned for Saturday. But the popular revulsion with Iran's rulers that drives the opposition has not faded.

To a large extent, the Green Movement is leaderless. The opposition presidential candidates it initially rallied behind are aging adherents of clerical rule who have little in common with Iran's huge ranks of frustrated young people. Yet it seems likely that a victory by the opposition would mean a shift toward democracy and liberal reforms. The White House was slow to embrace the movement -- so much so that protesters held up signs last year asking President Obama, "Are you with them or with us?" Lately, Mr. Obama has made some stronger statements, including one on Thursday that was delivered in his name by an aide before the National Endowment for Democracy, which gave its annual award to the Green Movement.

But as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pointed out in a powerful speech before the group also on Thursday, the president has hesitated to "unleash America's full moral power to support the Iranian people." Mr. Obama clings to the hope that the radical clique in Tehran will eventually agree to negotiate in good faith -- "an assumption," Mr. McCain noted, that "seems totally at odds with the character of this Iranian regime."

The senator proposed "a different goal: to mobilize our friends and allies in like-minded countries, both in the public sphere and the private sector, to challenge the legitimacy of this Iranian regime, and to support Iran's people in changing the character of their government -- peacefully, politically, on their own terms and in their own ways."

In fact, the administration has been inching in this direction. It has taken some small steps to help Iranians overcome the regime's Internet censorship. Many of the new sanctions are focused on companies controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which is the regime's backbone and prime instrument of repression. But the policy could be much more aggressive: The State Department, for example, is still sitting on tens of millions of dollars appropriated by Congress for Internet firewall-busting.

Mr. Obama's strategy hasn't slowed Iran's nuclear program or its aggressions toward Iraq, Lebanon or Israel. The popular discontent reflected in the Green Movement offers another avenue for action, one that is more in keeping with America's ideals. It's time for the president to fully embrace it.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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