Critical shift

The protests in Iran over the past few weeks have shown that the opposition in Iran is not going away. In fact, while the regime is shrinking, the opposition is growing and gaining momentum. For the West, this has significant implications. With nuclear diplomacy at a deadlock following internal Iranian divisions, the mass demonstrations underline the folly of a singular focus on nuclear matters in the midst of Iran’s historic upheavals.

Almost seven months after the elections, the Green Movement continues to deprive Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of any sense of normalcy. It is not surprising that the two are finding themselves playing defense. They increasingly focused on retaining their shrinking base, rather than creating divisions within the Greens.

But even here, they are failing. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral and the subsequent demonstrations last month showed once again the deep fissures within the conservative camp. These divisions grew even greater following Mir Hossin Mousavi’s statement on Jan. 1, in which he proposed a way out of the present crisis.

Furthermore, the internal strife has distracted the hardliners and slowed down Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Fewer centrifuges are spinning at Natanz, and smaller amounts of low-enriched uranium are being produced. The Obama administration itself has indicated through leaks that Iran doesn’t have a credible breakout capability in the short run. That means that the urgency of the nuclear clock isn’t as great as was assumed a few months ago.

Europe and the U.S.’s policies toward Iran must factor in this new political landscape. We must also recognize the Green movement’s ability to alter the course of Iran’s internal and external dynamics and behavior, and cease to craft its policies in defiance of that reality.

The internal Iranian clock may not be ticking as fast as the West would like, but we would ignore it at our own peril. The Green Movement plans to flex its muscles again in the coming weeks on the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution and the traditional mourning on the 40th day after Montazeri’s death.

This will coincide with renewed efforts at the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions on Iran due to the ongoing nuclear dispute. To pursue this path without factoring in the momentous developments inside Iran — and how it can affect them — would be a grave mistake.

The West should not do anything that would harm the Green Movement, including imposing broad economic sanctions on Iran that would hurt ordinary Iranians and provide a pretext for the hardliners to intensify their repression of the movement.

The Obama administration has recognized the importance of not alienating the Iranian people under these circumstances. “Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this week, “without contributing to the suffering of ordinary [Iranians].”

This is critical and a paradigm shift in Washington’s approach to Iran sanctions. But the policy must match the rhetoric.

Given that the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) controls a very significant fraction of Iran’s official and underground economy, it would be difficult to identify effective sanctions that can hurt only the IRGC, while sparing the regular population. Thus, the prudent policy would be to try to target the main figures of the regime individually.

At the same time, even if some sanctions can be identified that hurt IRGC companies, with minimal damage to the ordinary Iranians, their imposition should be accompanied by lifting existing sanctions that have contributed to the suffering of ordinary Iranians. These would include sanctions on medicines, on spare parts for Iran’s aging civilian aircrafts, on information technology and IT services, as well as on charitable donations to Iranian non-governmental organizations (NGOs). That would reassure the Iranian people that the targets are the hardliners, not them.

The bottom line is that the West has tried — unsuccessfully — to synchronize the internal Iranian clock with the nuclear clock. It wants the Green movement to run a 100-meter sprint, whereas in reality they are running a marathon. It’s time to try a different approach, one in which the Iranian democracy clock is given priority, and the strategy on nuclear and security matters are adjusted accordingly.

This would mean an engagement policy that focuses on human rights and not just the nuclear issue; a time-frame for diplomacy that factors in Iran’s domestic developments; sanctions that target responsible actors in the government and not ordinary people; and a recognition that no security deal is sustainable if it comes at the expense of the pro-democracy aspirations of the Iranian people.

First published in The Hill.

Parsi is the president of the National Iranian American Council and the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. An Iran analyst, Sahimi is a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California.

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