How Washington Can Really Help the Greens in Tehran

For the Obama administration, there are dangers in doing too much and too little to help the pro-democracy movement in Iran. Here is how to chart a safe, effective third way.

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.

The shift toward targeted sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- a 100,000-strong paramilitary and security force with significant business interests -- is a welcome development. However, because the IRGC controls Iran's official and underground economy, identifying sanctions that hurt only the IRGC while sparing the general population is difficult. Instead, U.S. and U.N. designation of specific individuals within the government and the IRGC responsible for the repression and human rights violations would make the sanctions both effective and truly targeted. Such designations would discourage foreign governments and companies from engaging with these individuals or conducting business with them and their affiliates, demonstrating to the regime that its domestic and foreign policies will have significant consequences.

Third, Washington should slow down the diplomatic process. Negotiation with Iran in and of itself is not the problem; engagement doesn't legitimize the Iranian government, as only the people of Iran can do that. But in spite of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's latest offer to accept the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear deal, Iran remains in political turmoil. It is questionable that Tehran can make enduring decisions on issues of this magnitude under these circumstances. Adopting unrealistic time frames for diplomacy is self-defeating, as time is needed to ascertain Tehran's ability to come to an agreement as the Iranian political crisis unfolds. Avoiding an unhelpful and unnecessary rush toward an agreement also helps defuse demoralizing fears among the greens that their struggle for democracy is of no relevance to the United States.

Fourth, the international community, including the White House and U.S. State Department, should be vocal in excoriating Iran's human rights abuses. Condemning abuses should not be confused with interfering in internal Iranian affairs. As a signatory of numerous international conventions, Iran has a legal obligation to uphold its people's human rights. When it fails to do so, the United States and the world community has a responsibility to speak up. The Iranian government is, perhaps surprisingly, very sensitive in this area, due to its ambition to be perceived as a regional leader. This sensitivity should be utilized to make advances on the human rights front in Iran.

This would be helpful to the green movement in two ways. First, international focus on Iran's human rights record makes it more difficult for Tehran to proceed with its abuses. For instance, the United States should support a special session on the human rights situation in Iran at the U.N. Human Rights Council. Second, it helps counter the Iranian government's perception that the United States is willing to sacrifice the human rights and pro-democracy aspirations of the Iranian people for the sake of a nuclear deal.

Finally, Washington should exercise patience and view Iran as a long-term factor in shaping U.S. national security interests across the Middle East. The green movement will not and cannot adjust its action plan to suit the U.S. political timetable. But if patience is granted --- which includes avoiding a singular focus on the nuclear issue at the expense of all other considerations -- Washington will access a far greater potential for change.

Ultimately, the Iranian opposition has shown tremendous strength and vitality without any material support from the United States. Iran's people, not outsiders, will be the ones to achieve sustainable democracy. The Iranian opposition is not merely concerned about the June election, nor is it a simple creature of Iran's factional politics. Rather, it represents a historic struggle for democracy and human rights. Between the all or nothing approaches, the United States can best help by providing Iran's democrats with breathing room.

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Prepare for Liftoff

The future of space exploration will be driven by private markets, not government spending.

The U.S. Defense Department may have created the Internet, but had it kept control of the technology, it's unlikely the Web would have become the vibrant public resource it is today. That credit goes to the investment and activity of private citizens and private companies, starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

With Barack Obama's new spending proposals, the same sort of thing could happen to space travel and exploration. Critics of the new NASA budget have described the U.S. president as "cutting" manned space exploration and abandoning the hope of a return to the moon. But in fact, Obama's novel approach signals a much more far-sighted view of space travel than Washington has had to date. The U.S. government should be leading the way in rocket science and space exploration, but it should leave exploitation of those advances to the private sector.

The new space budget will provide encouragement and funding for the private sector to do what it does best -- move from technology research to technology development. To quote Rick Tumlinson , cofounder of the Space Frontier Foundation, a space advocacy group, there's no need for the government to be "driving the trucks in low-earth orbit." It should focus on opening up the far frontiers while businesspeople deliver the goods.

The budget also devotes extra resources to keeping the International Space Station in operation.  The station was slated to be shut down, a crazy notion given that the United States has invested almost $100 billion and 30 years to build it and we have just started to make use of it. We have just moved to the six-person crew it was designed for, and it's a fine initial hub for other space activities, including commerce, research, and exploration.

However, common sense doesn't always rule in politics. When the Internet opened up to commerce, there were objections from the high priests of the cyberspace, who didn't want anyone to turn their holy calling into a business.

In the case of space, there are jobs at stake and, more importantly, politicians' careers at stake. Obama is proposing to cancel some $25 billion in NASA programs -- with most of the cuts affecting jobs in Alabama, Utah, and Texas, whose congressional delegations are now up in arms.

But in the long run, the new approach will create more jobs -- and more value -- because the United States will end up with both an innovative, long-term government space program and an energetic, fast-growing private-sector market that will transport people and cargo for the U.S. government, space tourists, and non-U.S. governments. Ultimately, the costs and risks of space transport will come down, flights will increase, and markets will grow. As with the Internet, we can't predict all the uses to which commercial innovation will put this infrastructure.

From the public's point of view, it really doesn't make much sense for the government to operate low-earth-orbit space flights when the private sector is willing to take over that part of the job. The private sector will take it on for profits and focus on efficiency over radical innovation, while NASA's scientists and engineers get the opportunity to work on more speculative, long-term research and exploration projects. Right now, a variety of companies are developing and building spacecraft, exploring the production of pharmaceuticals in zero-gravity (which produces purer crystals), and devising space tourism operations.

Politically, the fuss is mainly about jobs that can help politicians get elected, and not about space exploration itself. The simple solution is some promise that the jobs will not be lost; they will simply be transformed. If no commercial company is willing to hire these workers, then perhaps they could retrain as teachers, an area where the United States desperately needs more scientists and technical people, or in medicine, which requires the same meticulous attention to detail.

But the commercial space market will need at least some of them. President Obama and all of us who want to focus on the future should not forget how good the private sector can be at creating both jobs and opportunities.

So now let me disclose my biases: I write as a member of the NASA Advisory Council  (for which I do not speak), and I have trained to be a cosmonaut courtesy of the Russian government's space program. (I would love to see the U.S. government open up the skies to civilians as well.) Furthermore, I have investments in a couple of "new space" companies that stand to benefit from greater private-sector involvement in space travel.

I got involved in all these pursuits because I'm an enthusiast for space exploration and its two key promises -- getting kids excited about math and science, and allowing humanity to escape the confines of this single planet and explore the rest of the universe. At a time when so much public discourse -- and public spending -- is focused on the here and now, it's inspiring to see some hope that the U.S. government can still support both long-term projects and the kind of entrepreneurial businesses whose activities are key to America's success.

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