Since the death ten days ago of Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, Iran has been gripped by continuing protests against the country's ruling elite. As I noted in another article, the nation of Iran is now in a state of flux. On one side, significant elements of the Iranian youth now share in the interests and ideals of their counterparts in the democratic West. These younger members of Iranian society are increasingly willing to demand greater freedom. On the other side, Iran continues to be ruled by undemocratic, theological hardliners that govern with an iron fist. The Iranian clerical elite are convinced in the absolute rightness of their authority and doctrine and as such, are unwilling to consider reconciliation with the protest movement. As Iranians continue to be beaten, tortured and killed in their pursuit of democratic reform, the Obama Administration must now decide America's response. Put simply, is the American 'open hand' to remain open? Or, will the United States move to strongly condemn the abuse of the Iranian people and introduce real consequences for the Iranian Government for its actions?
Throughout his campaign for the Presidency, then Senator Obama, openly proclaimed that if elected, he would deliver a new era of positive engagement with Iran. A positive engagement that Obama suggested, would yield substantive benefits for international stability. In his Inaugural Address, Obama expanded upon this theme of engagement when he offered to 'extend a hand' of friendship to rulers that were willing to reciprocate in kind. The President also reached out directly to Iran in a video message he delivered on March 19th of last year. While this message lavished praise on the Iranian people for their cultural legacy, it also offered Iranian leaders new and unconditional legitimization and respect. Correspondingly, in an implicit but intended manner, Obama avoided giving any real sign of support for the Iranian democracy movement. The underlying message of Obama's message was thus clear; in return for co-operation in other areas such as building stability in Iraq, Obama would reduce voiced and physical American support for Iranian democracy movements, support that had previously flourished under the Bush Administration and earned the anger of the Iranian Government.
However, nearly a year into his Presidency, Obama's changes in US policy towards Iran have yielded little, if any result. Aside from the latest violent crackdowns on Iranian protesters, Iran's leadership have reveled in openly rejecting international concerns over their nuclear program and have continued to willingly contribute towards instability in Iraq. The ongoing human tragedy underway inside Iran now demands an urgent review of Obama's 'open hand' approach.
Some changes in US policy towards Iran may be coming soon. The New York Times reported earlier today that the Obama Administration intends to introduce new sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These sanctions if introduced, would receive a welcome reception from both those who seek a peaceful outcome to the Iranian nuclear standoff and from the Iranian democracy movement alike. While forming a powerful political constituency in and of themselves, the Revolutionary Guards also serve the practical role of enforcer for the hardliners in the Iranian governing class. Any program that weakens the power of the Guard Corps would also place reciprocal, tangible pressure on the Iranian regime. This pressure might or might not induce the Iranian Government to make concessions on issues of concern, however, added pressure would send the Iranian Government an unmistakable message that the United States is unwilling to sit idle in the face of their ongoing actions.
President Obama was honorable in his desire and correct in his understanding for the need in a new chapter in popular US-Iranian relations. Whether in terms of the 1953 Coup or, in blind support for the undemocratic Shah, past US actions in Iran did little to engender trust and respect for America in that country. Further, albeit indirectly, past American actions contributed to building the power that the hardliners in Iran now hold. Having said this however, it is a mistake for US policy to afford respect to those who deny basic freedom to their own people, while aggressively exporting violence across regional and international borders. Pragmatism rightly forms a critical component of any effective foreign policy. Yet pragmatic action must always support a sustained, underlying agenda that clearly pursues a real and defined outcome. Without direction for policy, pragmatism serves only to create a policy of drift that yields little effect. Because of our national identity, our national heritage and our privilege of power, America has a moral obligation to stand for what is right.
Obama was elected in part, on the understanding that he was a man who would unashamedly work to acheive a more just world. It is time for the President to start earning those stripes. What is happening inside Iran at the moment is not right. America must not be afraid to say so and act accordingly.