Can The U.S. Aid Protesters in Iran?

The liberal "green" movement is seen as friendly to America, but helping them could spur a backlash

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The "green movement" protesters at the center of unrest in Iran are seen as liberal, pro-democracy and friendly to America and the West. As protests and the Iranian government's backlash continue to escalate, many in the U.S. are searching for how America can best help the protesters in their cause. Iran's leadership, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, have been the target of much pressure from the West, which seeks to halt Iran's growing nuclear program. Sanctions have been under discussion since the discovery of an Iranian nuclear weapons program in September. But leaders of Iran's green movement still join with Khamenei in protesting sanctions. Is there anything the U.S. can do?

  • U.S. Intervention Harms Protesters  The Washington Note's Steve Clemons cautions, "The United States needs to be very cautious -- and not do anything on the ground in Iran that would allow the incumbent government to to evade "the death to the dictator" chants directed at it by distracting the country with evidence of credible external interventions."
  • Only Finely Targeted Sanctions Would Work  Spencer Ackerman reports the White House's growing fear that sanctions could hurt the protesters. "Green leaders like Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kerroubi have staked out an even more nationalistic stance than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, urging him to reject a deal offered by the Obama administration that would tamp down international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program." Ackerman notes that sanctions limited to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are considered more viable. "The Obama administration has yet to decide on a sanctions package, and accordingly has not secured international support for any specific sanctions. But the administration is looking at targeting the IRGC specifically — although a knowledgeable U.S. official said that unintended effects of sanctions on the Greens were a real concern."
  • 'The Case For Doing Nothing'  Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt makes it. "First, we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them," he writes. "Second, this is an especially foolish time to be rattling sabers and threatening military action. Threatening or using force is precisely the sort of external interference that might give the current regime a new lease on life. If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing."
If you’re looking for a useful historical analogy, think back to the "velvet revolutions" in Eastern Europe. [...] In fact, the velvet revolutions were a triumph of slow and patient engagement from a position of strength. The upheavals in Eastern Europe were an indigenous phenomenon and the product of containment, diplomatic engagement, and the slow-but-steady spread of democratic ideals through the Helsinki process and other mechanisms. And the first Bush administration was smart enough to keep its hands off until the demise of communism was irreversible, which is precisely the approach we ought to take toward Iran today.
  • Inaction Not An Option  Jules Crittenden explains. "Even the hawks that everyone is using as strawmen know we're not going to be invading Iran, and this would be a particularly bad time to launch air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. That said, signaling that you’re ready to deal with the thugs once their crackdown is done, so that they can continue thumbing their nose at you, is ridiculous," he writes. "What [Obama] needs to develop is what everyone thought he had when they voted for him. Moral courage. His Afghanistan move was a halting step in that direction. [...] So he needs to figure out the right balance of covert action, direct and indirect pressure, and public condemnation. It’s his job. And it's 3 a.m. wakeup time again."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.