This change reflects the triumph of Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden in the summer of 2009, assisted by pressure from the Republicans. The two pressured President Obama to stop being silent as the Green Revolution grew. President Obama did not hold a single high-level conference call or meeting to discuss a response to the protests as they reached their height. He belatedly responded with a strong statement referencing the videotaped death of Neda Soltan, and Clinton claimed that “behind the scenes, we were doing a lot” to help the protestors. Now, advocates of supporting the opposition appear to have won the debate, with the remaining argument focusing on the limits of that support.
Following Ahmadinejad’s ridiculous accusations of 9/11 being an inside job, President Obama was quick to add that “it stands in contrast with the response of the Iranian people when 9/11 happened, when there were candlelight vigils.” He then went to BBC’s Persian service to directly address the people, saying that when they face their hardships because of international sanctions, “they have to look at the management of their government, both in terms of the economic management but also in terms of them deciding that it’s a higher priority to pursue a covert nuclear program than it is to make sure that their people have opportunity.” An administration official said they will deliver his interview to the Iranian people through the Internet.
More and more, we’re seeing administration officials readily addressing the concerns of the Iranian people without being prodded. President Obama appears to have finally understood that the internal opposition is the most painful pressure point to press on the regime. The administration appears to be gently egging on regime change in its own restricted way, as that would rid them of a major headache, but that is not the objective of the policy. The administration is still not ready to ditch its goal of making the regime cave to a negotiated settlement, but rather sees limited support for the people as a means to that end.
This is encouraging but it definitely doesn’t go far enough. There isn’t a consistent campaign to make political prisoners famous, or to materially aid the opposition with the non-violent materials they need, or to establish a strike fund, or any other substantive moves, but it’s far better than the U.S. stance last year. And unlike the 2008 presidential campaign, this time around Obama may be forced by his aspiring Republican opponents to clearly declare whose side he is on (as the Iranian protestors have asked him to do) and embrace or reject a policy comprehensively supporting the opposition.
Long-shot potential Republican presidential candidate John Bolton addressed a rally of Iranians in New York City protesting Ahmadinejad on September 23. He and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani called on the Obama administration to remove the Mujahideen-e-Khalq from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
The debate over the MEK’s legitimacy and viability as an Iranian opposition group has divided proponents of regime change (I wrote an article laying out each side’s arguments here), but putting that debate aside, the probability is growing that whoever the Republican candidate is will make supporting the opposition the centerpiece of his Iran policy. Newt Gingrich has bluntly called for a policy of regime change, as has Rick Santorum, both likely presidential candidates.
The debate has moved from whether to support the Iranian opposition to what’s the best way of doing so. And that debate sends chills up the spines of the regime.