May 25, 2010 | Commentary

Whither Iran Policy?

Could it be true? According to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. administration may have changed its mind on the virtues of engaging Iran's regime while giving the cold shoulder to its street opposition. As Paul Richter reports,

After keeping a careful distance for the last year, the Obama administration has concluded that the Iranian opposition movement has staying power and has embraced it as a central element in the U.S.-led campaign to pressure the country's clerical government.

Clearly, the administration is not about to embrace the rhetoric of regime change. Nor is it going to send an expeditionary force to oust the tyrants in Tehran. But perhaps there is a growing realization that something unprecedented has happened in Iran since June 12, 2009, and that the best hope American interests have rests on a change of regime carried out from the inside.

Still, it is too early for optimism. The basis for the current push for renewed sanctions remains the same — to induce a change of behavior by the regime through a combination of incentives and punishments. As Richter notes, the focus of U.S. proposed sanctions is the Revolutionary Guards, and the logic is to undermine that part of the regime that is most impervious to change:

Administration officials and some allied governments believe that a combination of domestic unrest and international sanctions targeting Iran's Revolutionary Guard offers the best hope for forcing Tehran to yield on its nuclear program, and could even lead to a change in the government.

The problem with this strategy is threefold:

1. To really affect the Guards, one must target Iran's energy sector — a highly unlikely proposition for Russia and China, which means that such a strategy will fail at the UN level and can only be pursued through a “coalition of the willing” approach, hardly the preferred option for the current administration.

2. To convince Russia and China to stay on board, one needs to end talk of a “regime change” strategy; the two permanent members of the Security Council may be persuaded to support some measure of punishment against their ally Iran for the sake of preventing a nuclear-proliferation nightmare in the Middle East. But they are not about to support a policy aimed at unseating a government that is both friendly to their interests and useful to their needs and replacing it with one that might become pro-Western.

3. The EU is nowhere near supporting democracy promotion when it comes to Iran; its diplomats still explain that they are dedicated to the dual-track approach of sanctions and inducement; that their goal is behavioral change, not regime change; and that the detailed study produced by the Council Secretariat, which forms the basis of current discussions on Iran at the EU level, mentions no measure related to human rights and democracy promotion.

Then there is the fear that sanctions might fail to drive a wedge between the people of Iran and the rulers of Iran — that they might be, in other words, counterproductive. This is a real possibility, but fear of such a development should not paralyze policymakers. And as they calibrate the best course of action, they might consider adopting measures that emphasize a Western commitment to human rights and democracy inside Iran.

First, target the leadership of the regime by freezing their assets, denying them travel rights (including transit) across Western countries, which in turn will deny their golden children the privilege of holiday homes, shopping sprees, and educational possibilities in the West. Second, downgrade relations by recalling ambassadors from Tehran. Third, isolate Iran by restricting landing rights to its aging and not-so-safe airlines. Fourth, threaten to use universal jurisdiction against any Iranian official implicated in the state's repressive apparatus if they dare travel westward for any reason — including for medical treatment. Fifth, encourage civil society to engage in activities that are meant to promote awareness of the plight of human-rights activists and democracy supporters in Iran and to express solidarity with them.

These are just some examples — and there are many more ways to stand by democracy and irritate the regime at a time when it is domestically vulnerable and internationally isolated.

It's not clear whether the U.S. or its European allies are there yet — but if they wished to, a strategy to hit the regime where it hurts and promote internal change at the same time is available.

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