How should the U.S. respond to Iran's post-election turmoil? A month and a half after a fraudulent election sparked popular outrage among ordinary Iranians and an unprecedented outpouring of opposition onto Iran's streets, that question continues to bedevil policymakers in Washington.
The depths of the administration's dilemma are readily apparent. After all, President Obama campaigned heavily on his willingness to engage in dialogue with Iran, and has made talks with Tehran a key foreign policy priority since taking office in January. U.S. support for the Iranian opposition, even if simply rhetorical, will undoubtedly complicate prospects for such negotiations, and may torpedo them altogether.
Remaining silent, however, is not an option. As former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar outlined so eloquently in the Wall Street Journal not long ago, "passivity" on the part of the U.S. is likely to embolden the Iranian government, with disastrous consequences for the protesters--and for the future of freedom within the Islamic Republic.
There is a way out of this impasse, however; one capable of satisfying the administration's supporters and its critics. It lies in a model of "conditional recognition," under which the U.S. makes clear to the Iranian government that its place in the international community will henceforth turn in large measure on how it treats its internal opposition.
Such an approach is certainly not new. In the mid-1970s, the U.S. government applied a similar strategy toward the Soviet Union in an attempt to influence the Kremlin's internal conduct. That initiative--named "Jackson-Vanik," after its two main co-sponsors (Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Ohio Congressman Charles Vanik)--linked "most favored nation" trading status for the Soviet Union to a liberalization of the USSR's draconian emigration policies. The approach worked. Eager to engage in commerce with the West, Moscow loosened restrictions on travel, granting freedom to a generation of Soviet dissidents and laying the groundwork for glasnost and perestroika.
The lesson remains valid today. For too long, legitimate concerns over the Iranian regime's atomic effort have overshadowed serious discussions about human rights conditions within Iran. But Iran is a country deeply interested in international recognition and desperate for regional prestige, and therefore vulnerable to pressure that calls its status on these two counts into question. The U.S. can exploit this opening in two ways.
The first has to do with "engagement." Outreach to Iran may have become the centerpiece of the Obama team's Mideast strategy in recent months. But, as administration officials are quick to warn, it is not intended to be open-ended, or to shield Tehran from the consequences of its actions on the nuclear front.
The same should hold true with what Iran does at home. After all, the White House cannot have its policy with Iran become a foil that facilitates greater regime repression. To make sure that it doesn't, Washington will need to put Tehran on notice that the prospects for real, long-term dialogue are as much a function of Iran's domestic practices as of its nuclear ambitions.
The second has to do with trade. The U.S. today has far less economic leverage over Iran than it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But Europe can help. Cumulatively, the countries of the E.U. serve as Iran's largest trading partner, with an annual turnover trade of nearly $20 billion. And while European capitals have proved notoriously resistant to using this economic clout to pressure Iran over its persistent nuclear ambitions, there's reason to believe that the question of human rights might find a more receptive ear.
That is because the countries of Europe, almost without exception, are signatories to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which obliges them to encourage "the effective exercise of civil, political, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms" abroad. Over the years, those standards have been applied almost entirely in the breach when it has come to Iran. Washington, however, has the ability to make that laissez faire attitude an issue--and to nudge Europe toward taking a more activist stance on altering the Iranian regime's domestic behavior.
All of which would be a boon to Iran's nascent democracy movement. Thirty-five years ago, Jackson-Vanik subtly but profoundly changed the way the Soviet leadership related to its own citizens. In doing so, it created the empty political space necessary for serious opposition to the Kremlin to mature and gather. The same breathing room is now desperately needed within Iran, where the current protests remain chaotic and disorganized without leadership or a cohesive ideological vision.
Perhaps most important, however, is the signal that such an approach would send to Iran's ayatollahs, and to the world's other autocrats and strongmen. While leaving open the possibility for serious diplomatic negotiations, it would also make clear that when it comes to supporting those who seek freedom, the leader of the free world cannot and will not remain silent.