Tomorrow, February 11 (the 22nd of Bahman in the Persian calendar) marks the 31st anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, with both the government and the opposition preparing for another round of demonstrations.
Recent statements from two of the movement’s putative leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, indicate no intention of backing down. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Karroubi underlined the current regime’s illegitimacy and said “There is no sign of a willingness to compromise from our side — and also not from the other side either.”
SPIEGEL: What concessions do you demand from the Tehran regime in order to resolve the crisis?
Karroubi: The political prisoners must be set free, we need freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, our electoral law must be changed and a free election must take place. But then the current government would hardly be able to hold on to power.
In an interview last week, Mousavi made some of his boldest criticisms of the government yet, saying “the anniversary of the revolution, marked every year, is in fact meant for refreshing forces to confront the remnant of dictatorship.” Mousavi said the Green movement represented “the continuation of the struggles of the days and months leading to the 1979 revolution.”
Trita Parsi and Alireza Nader have a piece in Foreign Policy pushing back on the simplistic rendering of U.S. policy options as “realism” vs. “regime change” that has unfortunately defined much of the recent DC debate on Iran. (Interestingly, I made a similar point in a bloggingheads discussion yesterday with Eli Lake, recorded before I’d seen the piece.)
Parsi and Nader write that “between the extremes of doing nothing and doing everything, there is a middle ground: providing the Iranian pro-democracy movement with breathing space, rather than engaging in risky and imprecise exercises that would directly involve America as an actor on the Iranian scene.”
The authors recommend, among other things, that “the international community, including the White House and U.S. State Department, should be vocal in excoriating Iran’s human rights abuses“:
Condemning abuses should not be confused with interfering in internal Iranian affairs. As a signatory of numerous international conventions, Iran has a legal obligation to uphold its people’s human rights. When it fails to do so, the United States and the world community has a responsibility to speak up. The Iranian government is, perhaps surprisingly, very sensitive in this area, due to its ambition to be perceived as a regional leader. This sensitivity should be utilized to make advances on the human rights front in Iran.
On a panel discussion on Iran and human rights hosted by CAP last week, InsideIran editor Geneive Abdo suggested that, as the nuclear issue seems to be at an impasse, the human rights issue could be a more effective area to apply pressure. Unlike the nuclear issue, where hard evidence of wrongdoing is difficult to obtain, Iran’s human rights violations are undisputed, having been broadcast to the world via YouTube and Twitter. “Human rights seems to be a logical course,” Abdo said, “because there’s overwhelming evidence“:
The nuclear issue –- everything is disputed. There’s no transparency. But it’s pretty clearly been documented that they have tortured and killed people since June. And so I think that in that sense, they have to be held accountable to something that’s fairly concrete.
The human rights issue provides a way to bolster the claims of the Green movement without providing ammunition to their domestic critics, which is really important. Though the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators indicate a significant trend, there is no evidence that the Greens yet represent a majority of Iranians. The reformers are currently locked in a battle with the regime for the allegiance of the Iranian people — they’re making the case that they, not the current government, better represent the aspirations of Iran — and could find their appeals seriously undercut by an explicit U.S. enlistment in their cause.
This is especially true if support for the Greens is justified, as it has been by regime changer Robert Kagan, specifically in terms of potential benefits to U.S. hegemony, a chance to reverse the “strategic and ideological debacle” of the 1979 Iranian revolution, as Kagan wrote recently. Given the pride that most Iranians still feel about 1979 — Iran’s reformers are, thus far, contesting the legacy of the Revolution, not rejecting it — such an approach could effectively de-legitimize the Greens in the eyes of needed allies.
Parsi and Nader also advise something that U.S. political culture is not exactly known for — patience:
Washington should exercise patience and view Iran as a long-term factor in shaping U.S. national security interests across the Middle East. The green movement will not and cannot adjust its action plan to suit the U.S. political timetable. But if patience is granted — which includes avoiding a singular focus on the nuclear issue at the expense of all other considerations — Washington will access a far greater potential for change.
Painstaking diplomacy, carefully targeted sanctions, and support for international human rights norms may not provide the satisfying purity of bombing Iran, but, unlike bombing Iran, they could actually work.