Don't let the hype out of Tehran fool you. To hear Iranian officials tell it, the geopolitical earthquake now taking place in the Middle East and North Africa represents an "Islamic awakening" that will forge a new regional order more sympathetic to the Islamic Republic and its great power ambitions.
But the renewed anti-regime uprisings that have taken place in recent weeks in Tehran, Isfahan, Mashad, Shiraz and other cities—and the brutality of the Iranian government's response to them—tell a very different story. Clearly, Iran's ayatollahs are deeply worried that the "Arab Spring" taking place in the region could end up bringing down their theocracy as well, and are working feverishly to prevent such an eventuality.
Far less obvious is what the U.S. can and should do about it. Conventional wisdom within the Beltway is that the White House has only limited ability to influence the course of democracy within the Islamic Republic—and therefore shouldn't even try. In fact, there's quite a bit America can do, and do now, to aid Iran's opposition.
To start with, the United States can help ensure that the leadership of the so-called Green Movement remains viable. Today, Iran's pro-democracy forces are headed by two most unlikely suspects. Mir Hossein Mousavi served as prime minister from 1981 to 1989, the period during which the Islamic Republic spawned the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and restarted the Shah's nuclear program with a vengeance. Mehdi Karroubi was twice speaker of Iran's parliament—from 1989 to 1992, and again from 2000 to 2004—and in that capacity served as a rubber stamp for a broad range of repressive policies.
Yet these establishment politicians have come to lead the opposition, helped along by their ability to bring crowds into the street and galvanize the popular imagination. The Iranian regime understands this, which is why recent weeks have seen a range of punitive measures levied against both. Together with their families, Messrs. Karroubi and Mousavi have lived under strict house arrest for weeks, and reports suggest that the two men were recently snatched up by the regime's security forces. Members of Iran's legislature, meanwhile, have called for the two to be put to death on charges of sedition. The regime clearly views containing Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi as the key to crushing the Green Movement as a whole.
To make sure that does not happen, America needs to ratchet up the international focus on their plight. It was not all that long ago that the U.S. made the fate of key Soviet dissidents an issue in its dealings with the Kremlin. By doing so, it provided far greater breathing room for serious opponents of the Soviet Union to organize behind the Iron Curtain. Washington must do the same today, using its influence with Iran's diplomatic and economic partners abroad to prevent the Iranian regime from silencing Green Movement activists for good. Only when Iran's leaders understand that their domestic repression carries real costs abroad—measured in international commerce and in diplomatic recognition—will it be possible to stay their hand.
At the same time, Washington should redouble its own outreach to Iran's captive population. America's public broadcasting is already quite popular. By one estimate, outlets such as Voice of America's Persian News Network, Radio Farda and associated websites cumulatively reach nearly a third of Iran's adult population every week. But serious systemic problems—from self-censorship by U.S. government reporters to a failure to frame sensitive political issues properly—have left this outreach devoid of much meaning.
That is a major failure. More penetrating coverage of the long-term viability of the country's opposition and the corrupt nature of the country's clerical class could have a substantial impact on Iran's internal discourse, reinforcing to democrats that their cause is just and that the world is watching. For that, however, the White House will need to clearly and consistently articulate its support for political pluralism in the Islamic Republic. Once it does, it will need to enforce that preference throughout the vast and often unaccountable bureaucracy that manages U.S. public diplomacy, so that the Iranian people can understand it too.
Whether the United States takes these steps is ultimately a question of political will. Following Iran's rigged presidential election in 2009, the Obama administration was hesitant to weigh in for fear of undermining its nuclear diplomacy toward the Islamic Republic. Today, Washington has taken a much more vocal stance in support of Iran's opposition, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for the regime "to open up the political system, to hear the voices of the opposition and civil society."
But Iran's pro-democracy forces need more than just moral backing from the West. They need the U.S. to enact policies that amplify their efforts and make it more difficult for the Iranian regime to quash dissent without meaningful international retribution. In other words, the only way Iran's ayatollahs will go the way of Egypt's Mubarak or Tunisia's Ben Ali is if the White House finally puts its money—and its influence—where its mouth is.