A startling chant rose from the crowd in the latest round of anti-government protests in Iran. The tens of thousands who took to the streets a few days ago, risking imprisonment or worse by defying the regime, cried out in their native Farsi, but in the cellphone videos sent around the world one can easily make out one word echoing inside a puzzling sentence: "Obama, Obama!"
Why would the protesters call out the name of the American president? Listening to the sounds and watching the grainy images online, one might think the pro-democracy protesters -- still undaunted after the brutal repression that followed the stolen elections in June -- called Obama's name as an icon of democracy and freedom. Or maybe they wanted to conjure his trademark campaign pledge, Change.
The truth, however, is less inspirational and much more troubling. The full chant went something like this: "Obama, Obama: You are either with us or you are with them." The protesters are worried that President Obama is, in fact, helping their oppressors, the people who are beating, imprisoning and killing them. How could that be?
The timing of the Obama cry made it particularly poignant. Pro-democracy protesters had taken to the streets on Nov. 4, the 30th anniversary of the day when Iranian students took over the American embassy in Tehran, a milestone of Iran's Islamic revolution. The day is marked as an anti-American, anti-Western holiday in Iran, with the government busing crowds for large demonstrations against the "Great Satan." This year, the opposition took advantage of the occasion to show their movement remains alive against impossible odds and to send their own message to the West: Don't forget us.
Since the disputed election in June, the government has stepped up the level of repression in Iran. What used to be a regime founded on a unique combination of Islamic principles, democratic ideals and popular support has degenerated into a Middle Eastern dictatorship. The Iran expert Ray Takeyh, until recently a senior advisor to the Obama administration, wrote that, "The regime is systematically eviscerating its democratic opposition" even as it develops its "infrastructure for repression."
The anti-regime forces, meanwhile, are nervously watching Washington and the West try to negotiate a nuclear deal with the same men carrying out the political evisceration of the pro-democracy movement.
The focus on Iran's nuclear program is becoming a source of concern for opponents of the regime, and their concern should be a warning to the West. Reformers -- and knowledgeable analysts -- worry that Tehran is using the negotiations to gain cover for its repressive measures. As long as Washington wants to get a positive answer from Tehran on its nuclear program it will refrain from criticizing the political crackdown or sanctioning the regime for human-rights abuses at home.
Until now, negotiations with Iran have yielded no results. Iran remains wholly predictable in its ability to drag out the process while it continues enriching uranium, arming Islamic militants throughout the Mideast and oppressing people at home.
The Obama administration rightly wants to find a peaceful way to stop what most Western countries are convinced is Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. But we should remain fully aware of the price of this policy. Obama was reluctant to speak out in support of democracy protesters when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the street this summer, and he remains tight-lipped now. America is surrendering the moral high ground in pursuit of a deal with Tehran. That makes it even more critical that Iran not be allowed to trick the West into letting it run out the clock.
With every day waiting for that elusive nuclear agreement, the regime in the Islamic Republic is not only moving forward with its nuclear program, it is also destroying the opposition. And it is diminishing America's moral standing as a defender of human rights.
The chants of "Obama, Obama" raise the stakes in negotiations. They demand an even firmer deadline for nuclear talks. And they remind us that the regime with which the West may agree to make a Faustian bargain is not trusted by those who know it best, the Iranian people it betrayed.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes on international issues.