Obama's hard choice after Iran's latest protests

With nuclear talks faltering, the US may be better off openly siding with the regime's democratic opponents.

Antigovernment protests erupted again in Iran on Wednesday. Unlike previous marches against the rigged June 12 elections, this one was focused as much on President Obama as it was on the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Thousands of young people took to the streets in many cities, using the 30th anniversary of the United States Embassy takeover to keep their "green movement" alive. (Many marchers were hit with orange-colored paintballs by police, who likely didn't want to openly kill the many women in the crowds.)

But in a new phenomenon, demonstrators chanted to Mr. Obama: "Either you're with them [the ruling Muslim clerics], or with us."

By coincidence, a pronunciation of Obama in the Persian language ("oo-ba-mast") happens to mean "he's with us."

If only that were more true.

Mr. Obama has been cautious about openly siding with the pro-democracy forces, even to the point of defunding many US groups that defend human rights in Iran. For him to boldly champion the reformers might make it easier for the iron-fisted Islamic Republic to accuse them of being American agents.

But that stance is getting harder to defend as Obama falters in his strategy to engage Iran on its nuclear program. Iran continues to defy the West's offers of ways to end its race to produce bomb-grade uranium. And Obama implies that Iran faces a deadline by year's end to make a deal.

The US has a dual interest to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and to have it become a stable democracy. Up to now, pacifying the nuclear program has been more important.

But the opposition movement's continuing strength – in organizing protests despite ruthless crackdowns and in dividing Tehran's leaders – provides a tempting opportunity to switch the US emphasis.

A few leaders in Iran's opposition have recently voiced the idea that a democratic Iran would not pursue nuclear weapons. And even if a democratic Iran did have such weapons, it may not pose a threat to other nations.

Those scenarios, nonetheless, remains long-shots.

But so, too, do the talks aimed at a deal that would end Iran's apparent race to gain an atomic-bomb capability.

Even if a deal is reached, the regime's past secrecy and tendency to flip-flop does not bode well that it will keep it.

What's more, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose legitimacy is much in doubt after the flawed election, may be simply playing for time and using the talks with the West to gain an upper hand in Iran's political power struggles.

He can always crack down hard on protests and then give an incentive to the West not to complain about it by appearing to cooperate – for a while – on the nuclear talks. This dynamic could go on for a long, long time unless Obama decides to make human rights and democracy more important to the American strategy toward Iran.

More than 70 percent of Iranians are under 30 years old. Many want to embrace the civic ideals of the West and have little regard for Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The more they protest, the more the regime's true colors of simply being a dictatorship emerge. Every day its security forces look more like the Shah's secret police, SAVAK.

Obama did say, before Wednesday's protest, that "the world continues to bear witness to [the Iranian peoples'] powerful calls for justice." It was a weak acknowledgement of a powerful force in Iran.

After seeing the size of the protests, and seeing even more defiance from the regime, how soon will the US actually bear witness to those calls?

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