WASHINGTON — At first blush, it seems like a godsend for U.S. foreign policy: a tenacious Iranian opposition, democratic in name at least, is challenging a regime that has caused the United States no end of headaches over the last 30 years.
As huge new street protests loom in Tehran on Thursday, however, the 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution, the Obama administration is keeping its distance from the "green movement" that sprouted during last June's disputed presidential elections.
President Barack Obama and his aides have criticized Iran's human rights record in the face of the regime's security crackdown, with its widespread arrests and several executions. They've offered little encouragement and no aid to the protesters.
Senior U.S. officials expressed empathy for the protestors in interviews with McClatchy. But given the sorry history of American intervention in Iran, anything the U.S. government did to try to help would do more harm than good, they said. In addition, the Obama administration seems leery of banking its Iran policy on a protest movement that could sputter out or be crushed.
"We're in for a stalemate . . . an extended one," predicted a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. The opposition will persist "but won't be capable of bringing down the government."
The regime, led by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, has so far been unwilling to order a full-scale, Tiananmen Square-like massacre of the protesters. "The government is concerned about crossing a limit where they risk losing the loyalty of their own security forces," the official said.
Defying government warnings, reform movement leaders have called on supporters to surge into the streets on Thursday, 31 years after the Feb. 11, 1979, collapse of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran's regime. The government is expected to mass tens of thousands of its supporters well.
In parallel to the looming confrontation, Iran and western countries are in an increasingly tense standoff over Tehran's nuclear program. Iran on Tuesday said it had followed through on its threat a day earlier to begin enriching uranium to nearly 20 percent purity — closer to the level needed to fuel a nuclear bomb. Iran insists its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes.
In a White House appearance Tuesday, Obama said the United States and its allies are developing a "significant regime of sanctions" on Iran over its refusal of a nuclear offer made last October.
"They have made their choice for now, although the door is still open" for talks, he said.
Obama came to office determined to try and strike a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue. He's repeatedly offered talks, writing at least two letters to Khamanei and authorizing the highest-level U.S.-Iranian encounter in three decades.
By all accounts, the White House was caught off guard when supporters of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi poured into the streets last summer, braving attacks from state security forces to protest an election they said was stolen by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As protests have erupted since, the Obama team has stuck to a carefully worded script. The United States has demanded that Iran adhere to international human rights norms, a position that allows the White House to say it is not singling out Iran or goading on the protesters.
That was the gist of a joint U.S.-European Union statement issued Monday, in advance of the Feb. 11 anniversary. "We are particularly concerned by the potential for further violence and repression during the coming days," it said.
Several Iran experts, while acknowledging that U.S. intervention might backfire, said Obama is being too cautious.
All efforts to foment political change in Iran from the outside "have been a complete, utter failure," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. Still, he said, "the silence on the human rights front is coming across as extremely strange."
The risk, Parsi said, is that both the Iranian regime and the protesters will conclude that Obama is so eager for a nuclear deal, he's willing to play down human rights.
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a reformist member of Iran's parliament from 2000 to 2004, said Obama distrusts Mousavi and other "green movement" leaders because they, too, support Iran's nuclear development.
"I want to say this is wrong," Haghighatjoo said, adding that nuclear technology in the hands of Iranian democrats is much different than the same technology controlled by Iran's theocratic regime. She spoke at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Inside Washington's Beltway, the fate of Iran's regime has prompted a bitter verbal battle.
Those pushing for more action include prominent "neoconservatives" who led the push for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But one of them, Robert Kagan, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he's not calling for a U.S. invasion of Iran, and that the situation there should be compared not to Iraq, but to the former Soviet Union, the Philippines or South Africa before their revolutions.
He also noted that many other foreign policy experts have hardened their position on Iran as well.
"I believe that the two sides (in Iran) are in a death struggle," he said. "The only question is are we helping the opposition, or are we not."
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