Ever since last June's disputed presidential election, Iran has been in the throes of change, with the nascent "green movement" protesting against an ever-more-authoritarian state. For months, Washington has asked itself: Should the United States actively push for regime change? Torn between the fear of ending up on the wrong side of history by being too cautious and the fear of ending up undermining the pro-democracy movement by being too aggressive, Barack Obama's administration is playing a difficult balancing act.
History shows that intervention is easier said than done. Past U.S. attempts to sway Iranian internal affairs -- such as the CIA-fomented 1953 coup d'état against a democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh -- have proven costly for U.S. interests. Most notably, Washington's support for the shah fueled the 1979 Islamic Revolution, inspiring anti-Western movements in Pakistan, Egypt, and beyond.
To make matters worse, due to its absence from the scene during the last 30 years, the United States is not sufficiently equipped to understand and shape what appears to be a titanic struggle between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his opponents.
But between the extremes of doing nothing and doing everything, there is a middle ground: providing the Iranian pro-democracy movement with breathing space, rather than engaging in risky and imprecise exercises that would directly involve America as an actor on the Iranian scene. The United States can achieve this through a few simple steps.
First, the United States should tread carefully when it comes to issuing military threats. Under the shadow of a foreign military threat, the uphill battle of the Iranian pro-democracy movement becomes even steeper, as the Iranian regime is quite adept at exploiting foreign threats to stifle criticism at home. Moreover, the possibility of military conflict between Iran and the United States, or their respective "proxies," might allow the Iranian regime to distract the population from the internal crisis.
Second, the United States should avoid sanctions that put a burden on the Iranian people, rather than the Iranian government. Broad-based sanctions that hit the entire economy hurt common citizens far more than the powerful elites. Any new sanctions should demonstrate not only international discontent with the conduct of the Tehran government, but also an effort by the United States to keep from harming average Iranians.