Difficult Options For Dealing With Iran

The large demonstrations that occurred at the funeral of dissident Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Montazeri indicate that the Green movement, for whom Montazeri was the most prominent source of religious support and legitimacy, remains a potent force in Iran six months after the post-election demonstrations were violently suppressed by the regime, and as thousands of Iranian demonstrators and dissidents have been imprisoned and tortured in the subsequent months.

Meanwhile, Spencer Ackerman reports that, as U.S.-Iran talks have not resulted in any significant progress on Iran’s nuclear program, “Obama administration officials and their international partners are preparing a package of economic sanctions against Iran for 2010.”

They prefer to work through the United Nations Security Council, but are prepared to work around it if necessary. Absent a major diplomatic breakthrough in the next few days,new sanctions are considered a near inevitability.

Two senior administration officials, Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey and Undersecretary of State William Burns, have for months quietly assembled working groups across the government to determine what a sanctions package might contain. The groups examine Iranian vulnerabilities across a variety of economic sectors, “everything from energy to IRGC [the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an influential and ideological branch of the Iranian military] to financial sector” activity, said a knowledgeable U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss the unsettled contours of administration policy. The House of Representatives last week approved a bill giving Obama new authority to enact additional unilateral sanctions on Iran’s energy imports.

Finding creative ways to frustrate and slow Iran’s nuclear progress, while at the same working to create space for, or at the very least not injure or impair, Iran’s democratic opposition is a key challenge for the U.S. right now. As I wrote last week, Undersecretary Stuart Levey’s package of sanctions measures, which are aimed at garnering necessary international support and focus primarily on regime actors and various front companies used to skirt existing sanctions, not the Iranian people as a whole, probably have the best chance of working, if anything will. On the other hand, the blunt measures (IRPSA) passed by the House last week undermine both of those goals. The theory is that having ready a package of difficult-to-enforce unilateral sanctions that target Iran’s energy sector (and thus the Iranian people themselves, who will bear the brunt of these sanctions’ effects) will encourage more countries to get on board with multilateral sanctions. I’m skeptical of this theory.

Last week, Patrick Disney of the National Iranian American Council wrote of two other important bills that haven’t gotten a lot of attention. According to Disney, these bills — the Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), led by Rep. Keith Ellison, and the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA), led by Rep. Jim Moran — “seek to redefine how Congress approaches the Iran issue“:

SWIPA removes damaging barriers in existing US law that block Americans and Iranians from working together on projects like building hospitals and schools in Iran or promoting human rights. It also places tough, targeted sanctions on human rights abusers within the Iranian government as well as on companies that provide the government with tools of repression.

Similarly, IDEA will enable Iranians to access instant messaging programs like Google Chat and Microsoft Messenger that the companies themselves have shut down in Iran due to US sanctions. It also clarifies that sanctions do not prohibit anti-censorship and anti-spying software to be sent out of the US to Iranians.

As it was during the Cold War, facilitating greater engagement at the NGO level is an important part of creating networks and cultivating solidarity between Iranian human rights activists and their supporters outside the country. And IDEA can be seen as the further implementation of Obama’s “Twitter intervention” during the post-election Iran protests, in which the Obama administration asked Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance in order to give demonstrators uninterrupted access to the technology, which had proved a hugely important way both for demonstrators to communicate, and for getting information out of Iran: It provides people with access to tools of democracy-building, rather than attempting to directly coerce the government to behave more democratically.

And as all this is going on, the usual suspects are laying the groundwork for the next war. A new poll from the right-wing Israel Project — who were recently caught peddling a truckload of fake signatures in favor of unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran — suggests that a slight majority of Americans are in favor of bombing Iran in the event that Iran’s nuclear program is not brought to heel. This is unfortunate, as a strike on Iran, either by the U.S. or Israel, would be disastrous in a number of ways. In my view, the success of the Green movement is currently the best option for enhancing U.S., Israeli, and regional security — a recent poll showed that “two-thirds of Iranians would favor their government precluding the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.” An Iranian system in which those voices are heard, then, is highly favorable. It could take a long time for the Green movement to succeed, and we shouldn’t have any illusions about the ability of outsiders to achieve that success for them, but bombing Iran, and ceaselessly talking about bombing Iran, is probably the best way to kill it.