Whatever happened to the Green Movement? A year after the fraudulent reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad galvanized a groundswell of popular outrage, protesters in the Islamic Republic are growing silent. This has led some observers to conclude that the country's counterrevolution has run its course.
But a closer reading of events shows a movement that is still viable, if beleaguered. Following the period of post-election turbulence, the Islamic Republic has, since last fall, retaken the offensive against its domestic opponents. It has tightened controls on the Internet, passed draconian legislation to regulate assorted "illegal" activities, and turned social networking services against their users. It has discredited and silenced opposition leaders, both secular and religious. And the regime has strengthened the power of its principal enforcer, the feared Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. As a result, the Green Movement has been forced underground. But its principles—and its passion—still endure.
One problem for the opposition is that Washington so far has been reluctant to weigh in on the struggle for Iran's soul. When the Green Movement coalesced last summer, the Obama administration was still in the throes of its ill-fated diplomatic outreach to the Islamic Republic. The White House remained largely silent in the face of the brutal suppression of peaceful protestors, fearing that vocal support for Iran's opposition would undermine any chance of cutting a nuclear deal with the ayatollahs.
Today, most policymakers in Washington have come to grips with the fact that "engagement" with Iran won't happen. As a result, the White House has in recent weeks moved steadily in the direction of punitive measures. The United Nations Security Council just Wednesday passed a fourth round of sanctions (which Tehran promptly dismissed); the U.S. Congress is in conference over biting new energy sanctions; and there appears to be newfound (if fragile) consensus between the United States and its allies over the need to further pressure Iran for its nuclear transgressions.
But serious support for Iran's democrats is still embryonic. In early March, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control loosened licensing restrictions on the shipment of communications software an services into Iran, paving the way for censorship-busting software like "Haystack" to be sent into the Islamic Republic. Congress has done its part as well. As part of the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act passed last fall, Congress has given the State Department new authorities to help counter Iranian censorship, and to promote discourse on human rights abuses, via beefed-up Farsi-language radio and TV broadcasting and the creation of dynamic new Internet sites, among an array of measures.
It's time now for the U.S. government to put its money where its mouth is. Like their anti-Soviet counterparts during the Cold War, Iran's opposition needs reliable, independent means for communicating and coordinating their activities—technology and tools that the United States and its allies can readily provide. Regime opponents likewise need to be able to dispel the disinformation being spread by the Iranian regime, and to highlight official corruption. For that, they require unfiltered access to the Internet, and a receptive ear from Western media. And the Green Movement needs greater Western support for the plight of political opponents and dissidents, particularly those lingering in Iranian prisons.
America and its allies should engage on these fronts, confident in the knowledge that, although Ahmadinejad's reelection last year may have catalyzed the protests, the underlying causes for Iran's turmoil run much deeper. They can be traced back to the regime's socioeconomic failures, from runaway inflation to widespread poverty to what is perhaps the world's highest rate of drug addiction. Together with the regime's suffocating political and religious oppression, these factors have conspired to create widespread disaffection with Khomeini's Islamic Republic—disaffection that over the past year has been given voice by the Green Movement.
The free flow of information is like oxygen to Iran's opposition. At a moment when this type of people power is more essential than ever in heading off an international conflict with Iran's ayatollahs, it's high time to let the Green Movement breathe.