NYTimes: After the crackdown

七月 3, 2009

July 3, 2009

Tragically, Iran’s government appears to have driven back the most significant challenge to its repressive rule since the 1979 revolution.

First, the hard-line mullahs brazenly stole the election for the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested, they sent their thugs to beat and shoot them. At least 20 people are dead, and hundreds of journalists, political activists and former government officials have been detained.

Even before the elections, Iranians — likely the majority — were fed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad. They were sick of the corruption and incompetence. They wanted more say in how they are governed and more engagement with the world, including the United States. The regime’s refusal to listen has now exposed deep fault lines in Iranian society. Even some members of the clerical elite seemed to question the thuggery.

Predictably, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his backers were eager to blame others, especially the United States. President Obama rightly has worked hard not to play into that. There is no sign that the government in Tehran is close to toppling. The opposition has not asked for outside help. They know any direct American involvement would discredit them and strengthen the regime.

The difficult challenge now for the United States and other major powers is to come up with policies that give hope to the opposition and reinforce the doubts of Iran’s political elites — without provoking a backlash. The European Union is debating whether to withdraw all of its 27 ambassadors from Tehran to protest the detention of two Iranian employees of the British Embassy. We don’t believe in permanent isolation, but that kind of unified action would send an important message.

When they meet in Italy next week, leaders of the Group of 8 leading industrial nations should issue their own clear statement that Iran has violated international norms with its bogus election and repression.

There are other approaches worth exploring. The Europeans and Americans can quietly withhold visas to selected Iranian officials — or grant them, depending on what is deemed more effective at the time. Europe and the United States should look for ways to expand contacts with Iranian academics, artists and other members of civil society and with more moderate Iranian mullahs.

The fact that Mr. Obama has offered a new relationship with Iran’s rulers could make it harder for the government to discredit such contacts. After a decent interval, the White House should take a serious look at the idea of opening an “interests section” in Tehran to allow direct contact with the Iranian people. If the government rejects the offer, it would only highlight its own insecurity.

There is no question that the events of the last few weeks have complicated Mr. Obama’s offer to negotiate with Iran. Mr. Obama’s critics are already charging that talks will legitimize Tehran’s rulers and reward them for their abuses. But the United States and its allies deal with unelected and unsavory leaders all the time.

And there are too many important issues to talk about. Tehran’s nuclear program is advancing relentlessly. The United States also has a strong interest in trying to enlist Tehran’s help in stabilizing Afghanistan — there was a time when the Iranians saw the Taliban as their enemy — and restraining Iran’s meddling and worse in Iraq.

Mr. Obama has offered improved relations based on respect. But he also warned there will be heavy costs for Iran if it doesn’t abandon its nuclear ambitions. Our concern has always been that Europe, Russia and China would not follow through with tougher sanctions if Iran made the wrong choice. The events of the last few weeks are a reminder of why that line must be held.



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