Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obama, Don't Do Human Rights With Iran

By Ali Ezzatyar
This commentary was published in the Daily Star on 7/12/2010 

The odds are in favor of the status quo in Iran. From the eve of the revolution until today, anyone betting the other way went home a loser. While the domestic movements opposed to the traditional Islamic establishment have lacked key ingredients necessary to effect change time and time again, part of the blame for this lack of movement also has to be placed on the United States and its strategy in dealing with Tehran. Today, once again, it is adopting an approach sure to play into the hands of the clerical establishment.

Iran’s most promising opposition force, the Green Movement, was born last year following a sham presidential election that sapped any last hope that many in Iran harbored for Islamic democracy. The Green Movement, led by members of the Islamic Republic’s own leadership, was groundbreaking in pitting members of the old establishment (clerics and politicians alike) against one another for the first time over what the ideals of Islamic government should be.

Many traditional conservatives now stand in opposition to the exercise of power of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, through military and paramilitary groups. While battle lines are not clearly drawn, it seems that about half of those traditional members of the Islamic Republic’s elite are secretly or openly sympathetic to the Green Movement’s desire to push Iran into a less militarized, more positive direction, albeit still under the mantle of the revolution. These “pragmatists” are also sympathetic to a rapprochement with the United States.

The essential element that any movement for change in Iran needs is legitimacy from within the government and the establishment. Revolutionary change of the type seen in 1979 is very unlikely to happen in Iran without catastrophic implications for the Iranian people. Change must be gradual, and even those resisting change will have to be shown a way to be a part of a new path and atone for their sins. So while the Green Movement chugs on with the support of Iran’s people, what is the role that Washington must play?

Certainly not, as some suggest, to complicate current American diplomatic endeavors with demands for political change in Iran and the amelioration of human rights. Unlike the Iranian pragmatist conservatives, the militarist conservatives currently in power benefit from Iran’s isolation and are happy with more diplomatic stalemate.

Productive diplomatic strategy must then take into account the Iranian psyche and historical context: If history has taught us anything about Iran, it is that meddling in the country’s politics and domestic affairs actually sets the country back when it comes to advancing democracy, only empowering the naysayers. From the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in the 1950s to the support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, American involvement in Iran’s domestic affairs (sometimes well-intentioned) has left the US with no legitimacy as a preacher of democratic values.

While American diplomats seemed to be increasing their pronouncements on human rights and democracy heading into the negotiations with Iran Monday in Geneva, continued insistence on these issues will actually only underscore America’s duplicity and double standards in Iran, providing a tool for those seeking to do away with the Green Movement. Perhaps President Barack Obama’s intentions are better today on Iranian democracy than they were last year, but there are certain things the president just shouldn’t touch.

Conversely, concentrating on Iran’s nuclear program is both essential to US interests in the region as well as a golden opportunity to bring Iran into the international community once again, which is most apt to allow Iran and ultimately the Green Movement to thrive.

Today, Iran is more isolated from the world, economically and otherwise, than it has ever been. New sanctions have crippled its economy but have failed to bring about any meaningful change. The diplomatic cables leaked to WikiLeaks paint a picture of Iranian isolation in the region, not a desire of neighbors to cooperate with Tehran. The clerical establishment is eating just fine, however, while Iran’s middle class is stagnant and harbors little hope for the future.

The Green Movement, meanwhile, still lacks the support of key segments of Iranian society. That includes the poor, who help make up the bulk of the manpower in such institutions as the Revolutionary Guards. By conducting serious negotiations, even short of a deal, with the militarist conservatives, the US can fragment and widen rifts within the group. This will be beneficial to the to the Green Movement and may bring more segments of the population to its side. In part, this is why the militarists are so reluctant to talk.

As such, US engagement simply should not be premised on the popular legitimacy or human rights behavior of the current Iranian regime, but the genuine mutual interests of the US and Iran as nations. Never before has Iran seen this level of popular discontent paired with a splintering of the clerical establishment. Carrots for a standalone nuclear deal will be difficult for the militarists to ignore, and will have the potential of opening Iran to the world.  

American efforts to bolster the opposition directly and isolate the ruling establishment will fail as they have before. Dislodging the current regime can best be helped indirectly; linking diplomacy to human rights is probably a recipe for the failure of both. Advocates for change in Iran should support vigorous negotiation with Iran. As the Green opposition’s support grows in legitimacy and as it pressures the regime internally, the US role should not change.

Ali Ezzatyar is an American lawyer practicing in Paris, as well as a writer and consultant on
geopolitical issues, mostly relating to the Middle East. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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