Iran: Obama’s getting it, but it’s time to go all the way and support freedom for the people

“Mr. Obama appears to have crossed a psychological threshold on Iran, and in recent days he appears to have made a leap toward viewing tough new sanctions against Iran as an inevitability, after months of talking about the need for engagement.” – New York Times, September 25, 2009

President Obama’s tough remarks about the discovery of another nuclear enrichment site in Iran, which were echoed by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s Gordon Brown, show that Western policy is – thankfully – catching up with the reality of Iranian lawlessness.

Western leaders are demanding a tangible commitment by Iranian leaders, when they meet on October 1 with officials from the “P5 plus 1” (the five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany), to cooperate fully with nuclear inspectors and prove that they seek only a peaceful nuclear program.

But if, as the New York Times put it, Obama has “crossed a psychological threshold on Iran,” recent events demand that he take the next step and engage more directly with the 70 million people of Iran.

That is, he should seek not only to further isolate the regime on the world stage, as Western leaders repeatedly threaten, but at home as well. There, Iranians display breathtaking courage as they mock the regime and question its legitimacy while facing arrest, torture and death in the process.

Publicly, Obama should make clear to the Iranian people that the United States stands behind them, applauds their bravery and supports their aspirations. He should reassure Iranians that Washington’s dispute is with the regime and has nothing to do with our desire for closer ties with them.

The regime faces the most serious internal challenge in its 30-year history, with millions of Iranians rejecting the results of its fraudulent presidential election of June 12. Nothing that the regime or its goon squads have done to silence the opposition has worked and, at impromptu marches, soccer matches and elsewhere, Iranians chant “death to the dictator” (a.k.a. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) and wear green in a show of support for the “green revolution” of opposition.

When Iranians took to the streets after June 12, rejecting the official tally that gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an overwhelming re-election victory, Obama sought to walk a fine line. He only gradually criticized the regime for its brutal crackdown on protestors, for he did not want to enable Tehran to portray them as U.S. stooges and, in the process, rally other Iranians around the government.

Meanwhile, and for much the same reason, the State Department has been reluctant to push for more funding for democracy promotion in Iran. Nor have the organs of U.S. public diplomacy, such as the Voice of America, made a concerted effort to encourage democratic change.

Fine. But the president and his team need not worry any more about that dynamic. The regime has clearly lost its credibility at home, and it will be hard-pressed to recapture the legitimacy that it once claimed.

The regime’s days are clearly numbered. Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and company preside over a crumbling economy of rising unemployment and inflation that offers little hope for a population that’s overwhelmingly young, increasingly restive, and largely predisposed to the United States and the West. Tehran’s theocracy increasingly resembles a “thug-ocracy” that retains power through brute force alone.

At some point, force will no longer suffice. The opposition will reach critical mass, perhaps bolstered by desertions from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp, the regime’s internal security arm. Iran’s leaders will grow increasingly isolated. An energized public will march on their offices, and they will likely flee.

A new government will replace the old. However much we can hope, we do not know what this new government will look like, how much it will answer the democratic yearnings of Iranians, or whether it will discard the nuclear pretensions, terror sponsorship and hegemonic aspirations of its predecessor.

But we do know this: The next leaders will likely come from among those who now openly defy the government of today. Once in power, the new leaders will remember who supported their struggle for democracy.

Obama has crossed one threshold in his thinking about Tehran. Now, it’s time for him to cross another.

The Iranian people cry out for our support. They deserve it. And it’s in our long-term interest to provide it openly.

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