After more than five months of going it alone, Iran's opposition Green Movement is reaching out to the United States for help. Via public and private channels, the Obama Administration has received several appeals in recent weeks to take a stronger stand against human-rights abuses in Iran, avoid military action and impose more aggressive and rapid-fire sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards and its vast business interests.
The opposition's outreach comes as the Administration weighs the next move in its diplomatic effort to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. Tehran has effectively rebuffed a confidence-building deal that would ship out the bulk of Iran's enriched-uranium stockpile to be converted into fuel rods for a medical-research reactor — which would also have added about a year to the time frame within which Iran could weaponize nuclear material. The deal would have offered more time for longer-term diplomatic negotiations. As a result, President Obama has begun trying to rally international support for a new round of sanctions. (See pictures of people around the world protesting Iran's election.)
Washington has struggled since the disputed June 12 presidential election to figure out how to engage the regime without undermining the opposition. Now it has begun to hear answers from the Green Movement itself.
The most public message has come from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the exiled revolutionary filmmaker turned dissident who claims to speak on behalf of the Green Movement, during a Washington visit last week. He told U.S. officials and Iran experts Thursday that the military action would only strengthen the hard-line regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. "Dialogue is definitely better than war," said Makhmalbaf. (See the top 10 players in Iran's power struggle.)
At the same time, Makhmalbaf warned that the West should not "trample" on the Green Movement by fully embracing Iran's regime if it eventually reverses course on nuclear talks. He and other prominent opposition members are also urging the White House to more actively condemn the brutal crackdown since the election that gave Ahmadinejad a second term despite opposition claims of widespread fraud. The limited reaction has allowed the regime to believe the outside world is indifferent to what is happening inside Iran, he said.
Makhmalbaf said even modest steps are important, such as publicly mentioning opposition victims like Neda Agha-Soltan, the student shot dead during the June uprising who became an opposition symbol. (Obama mentioned her death, but not by name, the day he won the Nobel Peace Prize.) Washington also needs to recognize and respond to opposition statements, like the apology from Iran's leading dissident cleric, Ayatullah Ali Montazeri, for the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover. Montazeri was once heir-apparent to the revolution's founder, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his gesture on the 30th anniversary of the seizure was a risky step that passed largely ignored by Washington.
As the Administration begins lobbying its international partners for punitive new measures against Iran, Makhmalbaf and other opposition figures have urged the U.S. to focus primarily on the Revolutionary Guards. The élite unit is a growing political and economic behemoth, and its leadership is critical in propping up the troubled regime. They are not supporting other measures under consideration, like curbs on gasoline imports Iran relies on for domestic consumption, because these would mainly hurt the Iranian public, opposition figures have told U.S. officials.
"We need certain sanctions to hurt the regime, but not the people," said Makhmalbaf, who urged Washington to quickly impose a series of sanctions on the Guards since incremental steps allow them time to develop alternatives. The award-winning filmmaker, who now lives in Europe, said he was sent to Washington by the opposition; his talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was attended by senior officials from the National Security Council and the State Department.
Iran's refusal to accept the deal that required shipping out nuclear material for reprocessing in Russia and France, say Iranian analysts, is partly linked to the divide between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. The President, they say, is more interested than the Supreme Leader is in improving relations with Washington, a major coup that could earn Ahmadinejad badly needed international legitimacy. But he refuses to compromise on Iran's right to enrich uranium, a position with strong support from across the Iranian political spectrum.
Khamenei, meanwhile, is said to reject improving relations with the United States as anathema to essence of the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, analysts say he was initially more open to a compromise on a short-term deal.
Ironically, however, one reason among others for Iran's reversal after initially approving the deal was that Green Movement leaders had criticized it. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate who claims to have won the disputed election, criticized the proposal negotiated by Ahmadinejad's team at Vienna, warning that if implemented, it would negate the work of thousands of Iranian scientists. Opposition figures and analysts say his response was merely an attempt to play spoiler and prevent the regime from benefiting politically from a deal with the West. Still, nuclear diplomacy with the West has effectively become a political football in Tehran, complicating President Obama's quest for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.