I recommend Juan Cole’s analysis of yesterday’s Revolution Day demonstrations in Iran, which the government seems to have had well in hand. Internet access was shut down, preventing pro-reform demonstrators from employing the real-time protest strategies they’d developed over the past months, and security services were out in force to intimidate, beat and arrest the anti-government crowds that did gather.
I have to disagree, though, with Cole’s suggestion that the regime “checkmated the Green dissidents.” Check, more like. It was clearly a discouraging setback for the Greens, who appeared to have some momentum coming out of the Ashura demonstrations that they were not able to capitalize on yesterday, but it’s a long game. I think the Greens continue to represent a credible challenge to the system, but I don’t know of anyone, apart from the usual neocon hallucinators, who says that the Islamic Republic is in imminent danger of collapse. Based on statements both from movement leaders and street activists, I think the Greens themselves understand that this process is going to take a while, and has a range of possible outcomes, and so should we.
As for the best policy on Iran going forward, on Wednesday I did a bloggingheads with Eli Lake of the Washington Times, we discussed this among other things. I described my view that the “realism” versus “regime change” narrative that seems to have taken hold among some in Washington is not productive, and the Obama administration should perhaps take a page from the Cold War (the actual Cold War, not the comic book version that conservatives peddle) and continue to seek some accommodation with the Iranian regime over its nuclear program (and keep the onus on the regime through continuing engagement), but which also puts human rights solidly on the agenda.
As I note, based on past U.S. treatment of Middle East peoples as disposable instruments in the maintenance of regional power balances (aiding both sides in the staggeringly destructive Iran-Iraq War, for example) Iranian democrats have a lot of reason to believe that the U.S. would sell them out in favor of a chance to resolve the nuclear impasse with the regime. I hope the Obama administration will make it clear that we won’t.
Even though I’m skeptical for a number for reasons that a nuclear deal is still possible, understanding that domestic Iranian nuclear enrichment is broadly supported by the Iranian public, even the Greens, I think it’s worth considering offering an explicit recognition of Iran’s right to peaceful domestic enrichment, as opposed to the implicit recognition of already-enriched uranium contained in the Tehran Research Reactor deal. But rather than presenting this as simply an attempt to sweeten the pot, it should be accompanied by a demand that Iran commit to abide by its international human rights obligations, and the creation of some sort of verification regime along the lines of Helsinki Watch. This won’t provide the soothing satisfaction of an Iranian capitulation, but it could possibly bring Iran’s nuclear program under control, while also helping to create space for Iranian reformers to continue their work.