The Obama administration has settled on a policy of speaking out modestly but regularly against human rights violations in Iran, even as it continues to focus on Tehran’s nuclear program and the fading hopes of a dialogue with the Iranian regime.
The administration endured months of criticism over its decision not to offer strong and sustained public support to the opposition movement that blossomed after Iran’s contested presidential election in June. Now, it’s adjusting its approach. Instead of expressing support for Iranian dissidents – support that the regime could try to turn around as a weapon against the protesters – the administration is focusing on Iran’s violations of human rights.
The new approach debuted in a number of recent speeches by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as in statements from their spokesmen on recent events in Iran.
“The administration was being very careful not to do anything that could be used against the forces of opposition in Iran. But in striking the balance they settled on, they may have erred on the side of caution,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a grass-roots Iranian-American organization in Washington. “In the last couple of weeks, there’s been an effort to rectify that,” he adds, “and they’re doing it by shifting the focus to human rights violations in Iran.”
On Sunday, the White House acknowledged the death in Iran of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri by declaring, “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who seek to exercise the universal rights and freedoms that he so consistently advocated.” Mr. Montazeri had emerged in recent months as a voice for Iranian dissidence, commonly referred to as the Green Movement, and as an advocate for dialogue with the United States.
As some Iranians have gathered to commemorate Montazeri this week, security forces have cracked down.
The White House statement on Montazeri followed a speech last week on human rights by Secretary Clinton at Georgetown University in Washington. She referred to American support for the universal rights for which the Iranian people are now striving.
Earlier this month, in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Obama took note of the struggle for human rights in countries like Iran and said, “These movements of hope and history, they have us on their side.”
Those statements came even as the president’s year-end deadline for Iran to respond to invitations for dialogue was fast approaching. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the Dec. 31 date for Iran to accept a dialogue on its nuclear program “is a very real deadline for the international community.” The administration, he added, is already exploring subsequent steps, including the possibility of another round of international sanctions.
Although Obama at times has encountered withering criticism for the cool response to the Iranian opposition, some otherwise strong critics of the administration’s foreign policy say they are more sympathetic to the “difficult” situation that Obama is in.
“The absence of rhetoric from Obama doesn’t bother me so much,” says John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush administration who supports regime change as a means of stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon. “There’s something to be said for not speaking out unless you are prepared to back it up with credible assistance,” he adds, “and there’s no way Obama will do anything tangible to help them out.”
The US, Mr. Bolton says, has a history of failing to back up verbal support for uprisings with deeds – Hungary in 1956, Iraq’s Kurds and Shiite population in 1991. So Obama, at least, is not committing the error of empty promises, he says.
“It’s really a difficult question, because supporting an opposition is not something easy to implement,” he says. “And obviously you don’t want to taint the very people you are trying to empower.”
The Obama administration’s new policy also flows from a realization that dialogue with the West, along with a possible accord on the nuclear program, was “shot down because of Iran’s inability to find a consensus on the issue” among key regime players, Mr. Parsi says.
“Things haven’t settled down in Iran, and they are not going to,” he says. “So the administration was faced with coming up with a new policy for the new circumstances.”
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