The wave of popular uprisings sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East exposes the fundamental contradiction of the authoritarian regime in Iran—it tries to claim these people’s revolutions as its own but resorts to the same tactics used by Arab dictators to suppress the will of the Iranian people.
This obvious hypocrisy creates an opening for the Obama administration to increase the pressure on Iran’s government and more openly support Iran’s democracy movement. But it also vindicates the administration’s Iran engagement policy, which puts our nation in a far better position to exploit this opening than was the case under the George W. Bush administration.
Speaking earlier this week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized this: “We have to go chapter and verse about everything that Iran is doing that abuses the rights of their own people and exposes their hypocrisy as they try to somehow identify with the legitimate aspirations for democracy and human rights in this region.”
Secretary Clinton noted that in the past the Obama administration had “modulated” its message because the Iranian regime would “basically paint anybody who opposed them as American stooges.” But given the new level of repression the regime is now engaged in, which includes, in a significant escalation, the arrest of former presidential candidates and opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, this argument is now “moot.”
Citing the decades-long reform efforts in the Soviet Union, Secretary Clinton also cautioned that it is important for supporters of Iranian democracy to look for “hinge-of-history” moments when a “critical mass” of support for fundamental change arrives. That moment has arrived in many Arab countries but she argued that Iran “is a more difficult case.”
Secretary Clinton’s comments came several days after issuing her strongest criticism yet of the Iranian regime. “It has been made clear to the world that Iran denies its citizens the same fundamental rights it continues to applaud elsewhere in the Middle East,” she said last Thursday amid continuing reports of crackdowns.
Clinton also rightly pushed back on Rep. Michael McCaul’s (R-TX) claim that our diplomacy with Iran was “naïve.” The secretary of state responded that “we always had diplomacy with the Soviet Union” and that “we were sending messages behind the Iron Curtain about what the alternatives were, every minute of every day.” She added, “that’s what we need to be doing” in Iran, too.
According to prominent Iranian democracy activists themselves, President Obama’s Iran diplomacy helped create a favorable environment for their movement. “Obama offered a dialog with the Iran,” dissident journalist Akbar Ganji said in an interview last year, “and this change in discourse immediately gave rise to the outpouring of sentiment against the Islamic Republic” in June 2009.
Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi similarly praised Obama’s diplomacy in an interview last year, noting that by showing a willingness to engage with Iran, Obama helped reveal, both to the international community and to the Iranian people, “that it is the Iranian regime that doesn’t want to talk.”
In contrast, according to Ganji, “The belligerent rhetoric of [President] Bush didn’t help us [the Iranian democracy movement], it actually harmed us.” Ganji also stressed that “jingoistic, militaristic language used by any foreign power would actually be detrimental to this natural evolution of Iranian society.”
Contrary to the claims of some American critics who say President Obama squandered an opportunity by not speaking out more forcefully on behalf of protesters in June 2009, Ebadi said “the Green movement is the Iranian peoples’ movement,” and not something that can be driven by outside powers. While it’s important for the United States and other democracies to voice support for human rights, Ebadi said, real change “must come from inside Iran.”
By carefully but strongly drawing attention to Iran’s hypocrisy, the United States can help encourage that change. In an interview he conducted with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen observed: “Ahmadinejad is a one-trick pony. His thing is double standards. Ask about the Iranian nuclear program, he’ll retort with Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal. … ask about Iranian lying, he’ll counter with human rights and Abu Ghraib.”
These kinds of arguments have been the Iranian regime’s stock in propaganda trade. While continuing to make clear to Iran that the United States is willing to negotiate, the Obama administration should seize the opportunity to turn such arguments back on them. They should also claim some credit here at home for having put our nation in a far better position to do so.
Matthew Duss is the National Security Editor at the Center for American Progress.