May 06, 2011

U.S. 'Human Rights' Stance on Iran Would Weaken Opposition

Featuring Zachary N. Keck

Source: World Politics Review

The recent events in the Arab world and Iran have led many in the West to urge President Barack Obama to take a stronger stance against human right abuses in Iran. The Obama administration should resist this temptation, as doing so would only serve to weaken Iran's domestic opposition. As the popular uprisings in the Middle East have demonstrated, revolutions are most successful when they are organic.

The voices calling on the Obama administration to give greater attention to human rights abuses in Iran have been forceful and diverse. A Washington Post editorial from last month, for instance, told the administration to "bet on a renewed popular uprising in Iran" and advocated increasing U.S. aid to Iranian dissent groups. Then, after the European Union placed sanctions on 32 Iranian officials for human rights abuses, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to "designate President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad as an Iranian human rights abuser" and to enact sanctions against other Iranian officials. More proactively, two prominent think tanks have formed a joint task force to generate recommendations for how the United States can place democracy and human rights at the forefront of its Iran policy. 

These arguments, however well-intentioned, are misguided. The Iranian government's violent repression of dissidents certainly stands in direct contrast to democratic values as well as to the professed values of the Islamic Republic itself. But putting overt pressure on the Iranian government for its human rights abuses risks alienating the domestic opposition from the Iranian population and would almost certainly unify an increasingly fractured Iranian leadership. 

When faced with domestic opposition, the Iranian government has consistently fallen back on portraying dissidents as puppets acting on behalf of foreign powers. The government has used this approach for one simple reason: It has often proved effective. Centuries of exploitation at the hands of foreign powers have left the Iranian people fiercely nationalistic and conspiracy-minded, prone to believing that foreign designs on their sovereignty abound.

Conscious of this, Green Movement leaders went to great lengths following the fraudulent presidential election in 2009 to frame themselves as an indigenous movement devoid of foreign influence. The fact that Iranians took to the streets in such large numbers was itself a validation of the Obama administration's engagement strategy, which deprived the ayatollahs of their favorite scapegoat, the United States, for explaining away their many failures. 

Leaving nothing to chance, however, the Green Movement's leadership actively countered government propaganda aimed at portraying them as foreign agents. Thus the movement's de facto leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, championed the slogan, "Na dolat'e d'etat, na menat'e Amrika!" -- which roughly translates to "No to a coup d'etat government, but no to an indebtedness to America." Mousavi's job was no doubt complicated by Iranian exile groups and Western leaders who offered their unsolicited support for the Green Movement. In describing the effect this support had in Iran, Iranian-American author Hooman Majd, a close confidant and relative of former President Mohammad Khatami, wrote, "Tehran's propaganda machine could not have asked for a greater gift, one they could use to further marginalize Mousavi." As political insiders who understand Iran in ways outsiders cannot, Mousavi and Majd's message is clear: U.S. interference undermines the strength of Iran's opposition.

Overt action against human rights abusers would also unify an increasingly fractured Iranian leadership. Students of revolutions have identified divisions among the ruling elite as one of the conditions that historically have created situations favorable to the success of uprisings. Right now the Iranian elite are more divided than at any point in the Islamic Republic's brief history.  

These divisions began to surface in earnest in February, when the government took the unprecedented step of arresting Mahdi Karroubi and Mousavi, both opposition leaders who nonetheless remain longstanding regime insiders. To put this in perspective, even after helping lead the 2009 protests, Mousavi still retained his post on the powerful Expediency Council. An even more surprising change took place in March, when Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, a fixture of Iranian politics since the Islamic Republic's founding, was stripped of his chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics tasked with choosing and overseeing the supreme leader. 

Then in April, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei withdrew the unequivocal support he has given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since the latter was elected in 2005, byreinstating an intelligence official Ahmadinejad had fired. Adding insult to injury, Khamenei also publicly chastised Ahmadinejad in the media. For his part, Ahmadinejad skipped several cabinet meetings following Khamenei's rebuke.    

Nonetheless, the different factions remain united in their support for the preservation of the Islamic Republic, in some form or another, and in their opposition to foreign interference in Iran's internal affairs. It is therefore difficult to conceive of a more effective way to bring the feuding parties together than a U.S.-led human rights initiative aimed at facilitating the government's overthrow. 

As the events of the Arab Spring have demonstrated once again, successful opposition movements come from within. Iran's leaders are currently off balance. The United States should resist the urge to stand them back up.


  • Zachary N. Keck