I recently wrote this op-ed and submitted it to the Baltimore Sun. It was rejected. So, now it's posted here instead. For those who are interested, the historical background comes from this fascinating article by Muhammad Sahimi at Tehran Bureau
Americans have learned many things about Iran these past few months. We’ve learned of the brutality of the baton-wielding Basij and the courage of the Iranian citizens who bear the brunt of their blows. We’ve learned of the cruelty of Evin Prison’s interrogators and the perseverance of the victims who endure their torture. We’ve learned of the ruthlessness of the hollow regime in Tehran and the strength of the opposition who demand their fundamental rights.
We have also learned about the utter complexity of Iranian politics. Take, for example, Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, who Muhammad Sahimi at the Tehran Bureau calls “the power behind the scene” of the opposition movement.
The regime clearly wants to silence Khoeiniha. Yet given his impeccable revolutionary credentials, the regime cannot do so without revealing how ideologically hollow they have become. Khoeiniha served as one of Ayatollah Khomeini's most trusted advisers. Furthermore, it was Khoeiniha who gave approval to the students of the Office for Consolidation of Unity (OCU) to storm the American embassy on November 4, 1979. To this day, Khoeiniha proudly keeps a filing cabinet in his office that reads "Property of the General Services Administration" of the United States.
Most interestingly, two students on the OCU board opposed the decision to take over the American embassy. Instead, they argued that the students should target the Soviet Embassy (at this time, Communists were still influential throughout Iran). In an ironic twist of history, one of those dissenters was none other than current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This history lesson should give pause to any American foreign policymaker. Iranian politics are incredibly complex, constantly evolving and frustratingly opaque. Even if we do have experts who understand its subtleties, and that's a big if, any nuanced analysis is likely lost as information is passed up the chain of command.
At a recent event on Capitol Hill, Brookings Institution expert Kenneth Pollack warned the audience that we must not try to meddle in internal Iranian affairs, especially given the difficulty in understanding all of its nuances. We simply don't understand how to intervene successfully. When we have tried in the past, such as supporting the Shah's coup in 1953, we only have laid the foundation for anti-Americanism, extremism and regime paranoia.
But at the same time, we cannot ignore the struggle for Iranian democracy as we negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program. No matter the checkered past of the opposition leaders, the Green Movement presents the best opportunity for a prosperous and stable Iran in the long-term, an Iran that will no longer poses a strategic threat to the United States and its allies.
Moving forward, U.S. policymakers should therefore follow three guidelines:
1. Listen to the Iranian people. None of the information above is news to the Iranian people. They know the history of their leaders and what implications those histories may entail. Where we are ignorant, they are knowledgeable. Where we are cumbersome, they are agile. Quite simply, they know what works and what doesn't. Admittedly, it will be sometimes difficult to determine what the Iranians want - they will often disagree and debate amongst themselves. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't listen and learn as best we can.
2. Do no harm. Ultimately, this struggle belongs to the Iranians. They must answer the tough questions and take the bold actions. They have done so already and will continue to do so, as shown most recently by the protests on November 4th. We can help when it is clear our assistance is both needed and wanted. We must not rush policy for the appearance of solidarity, but rather we must carefully consider how our actions will impact the interests of the Iranian people. When the result is in doubt, doing less is better than doing harm.
3. Bolster institutions and processes, not personalities. It is exceedingly difficult to determine who in Iran deserves American support. It would be hard to explain why opposition leaders like Ayatollah Khoeiniha deserve our assistance, given his pedigree. Nor is his case special. Many of the opposition leaders, including Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, held high level government positions as the regime executed thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s. But even if we did find leaders deserving of support, it is unclear how the U.S. can substantively help them without risking their reputations as independent politicians free of foreign influence.
Instead, the U.S. should look to support efforts to strengthen the institutions and processes that uphold all healthy democracies - a free press, a thriving civil society, an independent judiciary, electoral safeguards and the rule of law. By bolstering Iranian democracy without elevating specific personalities, the U.S. can avoid most charges of meddling while exposing those who would deny the Iranian people their inalienable right of self-determination.