February 16, 2011 | New York Daily News

This Time, President Obama Must Do More to Support Iran’s Protesters

The pro-democracy movements of Egypt and Tunisia brought tens of thousands of Iranians into the streets to protest their authoritarian regime on Monday. Although the Obama administration stood by as Iran's despots cracked down on the country's civilian population after the fraudulent elections of June 2009, the State Department is now embracing a moderately democratic strategy.

“We wish the opposition and the brave people in the streets across cities in Iran the same opportunity that they saw their Egyptian counterparts seize in the last week,” Secretary of State Clinton said. The State Department has also launched a Twitter account in Farsi, which attracted 2,000 followers on its first day, and called for “freedom and peaceful assembly for all.”

Yesterday, Clinton also announced that the United States will help people living under repressive regimes to use the Internet and mobile technologies to organize peaceful democratic activities. The State Department will pay for services that enable Internet users in foreign countries to work around fire walls that prevent them from reading foreign news sources, and to protect their email from security services that use it to track them down.

To its credit, the Obama administration is reaching out to grass-roots Iranian democrats. Yet the business of democracy promotion in Iran must entail a comprehensive plan of action. Iran's rulers have a strong sense of national pride, and they dislike being singled out for bad behavior. This makes them particularly vulnerable to sanctions that name those who are guilty of human rights violations.

Last month, Iran purged dozens of political prisoners in a wave of extrajudicial executions. The Iranian regime hanged an estimated 73 people, including a 45-year-old Dutch-Iranian woman named Zahra Bahrami. Her “crime”? Attempting to replicate what Egyptian protesters have done – namely, calling for democratic reforms.

Bahrami participated in the 2009 demonstrations after rigged elections carried Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to another term in office. The Iranian judiciary framed her, alleging that she had smuggled narcotics. In response, the Netherlands froze its relations with Iran and recalled its ambassador to Tehran – becoming the first European Union country to do so.

It is no accident the Iranian regime's killing spree coincided with the mass demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made clear to his people that he is not sympathetic to their demands, and he has no qualms about shedding their blood to extinguish their pro-democracy movement.

How can the U.S. and allied governments translate the rhetoric of democratic solidarity into concrete support for Iran's pro-democracy movement?

This past September, the Obama administration imposed human rights sanctions, unprecedented in nature, on eight top-level Iranian government officials for committing torture, rape, violent beatings and unlawful detention of Iranian citizens. The sanctions aim to penalize only the members of the Iranian regime and military apparatus who were responsible for crushing the pro-democracy protests in 2009.

In light of Iran's energetic drive to obtain nuclear weapons, and its appalling human rights record with respect to the treatment of women, minorities, trade unionists and political dissenters, the United States should now go further.

First, Clinton should call for an Iranian democracy summit in Washington. Its goals should be to fund nongovernment organizations that support Iranian democracy initiatives, and to sanction additional Iranian officials who have been involved in the country's human rights violations and its illegal nuclear program.

Human rights groups, Iranian dissidents and the AFL-CIO should be invited to offer their expertise in supporting Iranian democracy. A telling example was the role of the AFL-CIO during the Egyptian political unrest.

When the Mubarak regime tried to cut Egypt off from the Internet, activists from the independent NGO Center for Trade Union and Workers Services were able to phone in their daily communiques to the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center in Washington. The messages were transcribed, translated from the Arabic and passed on to the wider trade union world using websites such as LabourStart. Iran's regime has sought to eradicate all independent labor union activity and has incarcerated union leaders who chose to form nonregime-controlled labor organizations.

The summit can also serve as a way to rekindle the broad-based U.S.-backed coalition to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Plainly said, the European Union ought to follow Washington's lead and place Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps on the EU terror list. The guard corps helped crush Monday's demonstrations and controls Iran's military-industrial complex.

European partners like Germany must fall into line with U.S. sanction efforts and shut down Iran's main financial conduit in Europe – the Hamburg-based European-Iranian Trade Bank. A group of leading U.S. senators, including Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), issued a strongly worded letter in early February to German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle about Germany's ongoing failure to end the bank's worst practices, if not close it entirely.

In 2009, the Iranian people launched protests that shook the entire Islamic world, creating the first cracks in the dam that ultimately burst with the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Iranian democrats asked during the 2009 protests: “Obama: Are you with us or against us?”

At the time, President Obama and the leaders of Europe largely abandoned them. Now they have a second chance. They can begin repairing the damage – and breathing new life into Iran's struggling democratic movement.

Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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