U.S. changing focus of Iran policy

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After keeping a careful distance for the last year, the Obama administration has concluded that the Iranian opposition movement has staying power and has embraced it as a central element in the U.S.-led campaign to pressure the country’s clerical government.

Administration officials and some allied governments believe that a combination of domestic unrest and international sanctions targeting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard offers the best hope for forcing Tehran to yield on its nuclear program, and could even lead to a change in the government.

The administration has made the shift at a time when it is facing sharp domestic criticism over President Obama’s failed initiative to launch negotiations with Iran and its perceived unwillingness to strongly back the opposition movement. Meanwhile, the protests sparked by June’s disputed presidential election in Iran grew despite a tough crackdown.

This new approach is not a sure thing: It is far from clear that squeezing the Revolutionary Guard, a sprawling military organization that has vast business interests and is close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would seriously damage it or strengthen the opposition, as the administration hopes. And despite high-profile encouragement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. officials, many opposition activists fear that Washington’s embrace will bring more harm than good.

“Just leave us alone, please,” one activist in Tehran pleaded.

Still, U.S. officials and some European allies believe that there is less downside to openly supporting the opposition now because Iran has grown more politically polarized and the opposition is under direct assault.

Clinton, visiting the Persian Gulf region last month, warned repeatedly that Iran was becoming a “military dictatorship” and tried to draw a distinction between the power structure and the protest movement, which she said cared more about the lives of average Iranians.

“They don’t want to see sanctions,” she said of the Iranian opposition. “They don’t want to see the end to their democracy. They don’t want to see the rise of an unelected body or a non-clerical body, namely the Revolutionary Guard, assuming all of this power.”

The administration’s support for the opposition has been an issue since the June 12 presidential election. The perception of widespread electoral fraud sparked huge demonstrations against Ahmadinejad that have continued sporadically despite a violent crackdown and the imprisonment of protesters.

But the relatively poor turnout at protests on the Feb. 11 anniversary of the Islamic Revolution has raised questions about the movement’s momentum.

Whereas Clinton previously talked about “crippling” sanctions aimed broadly at the Iranian public, the administration is now pressing the U.N. Security Council for international sanctions targeting the Revolutionary Guard. The administration and its European allies appear to be gaining Russian support, but serious questions remain about China.

Separately, the Treasury Department in February slapped U.S. sanctions on some organizations and individuals tied to the Revolutionary Guard.

“Sanctions are increasingly being looked at by the administration in the context of how these measures could be potentially helpful to the cause of political reform in Iran,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Depriving the Revolutionary Guard of the ability to sign billion-dollar contracts and turning them into an international pariah would be welcomed by many democratic activists in Iran.”

Though U.S. officials have emphasized that they are not trying to overthrow the Iranian government, Vice President Joe Biden and national security advisor James L. Jones have cheered those pressing for a tougher approach by speaking publicly about the prospects for political change.

The new approach does not include formal ties to Iranian dissidents; however, there have been intermittent contacts with some Iranians connected to the opposition.

Administration officials have urged private telecommunications firms to do what they can to enable opposition access to the Internet and other forms of communication.

Late last year, the administration spurred a change in U.S. sanctions to improve Iranians’ access to software needed for certain communication processes.

“We’re focusing now on how pressures from the outside, combined with pressure from the inside, could turn this around,” said a U.S. official who is regularly briefed on the administration’s approach.

Some reformers in Iran are fearful that the U.S. approach will bring problems.

“It puts reformist and civic activists in danger,” said Yousef Mollai, a professor of law at Tehran University and a reformist. “The Islamic Republic is waiting for any document showing covert or overt help of the U.S. to the Iranian opposition to claim, ‘Hey, look, the reformists are the paid lackeys of the U.S. administration.’ And then there will be more pretexts for arrests.”

Morad Saghafi, a social scientist and magazine editor who supports opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, said there are “no common values shared between the Iranian opposition and the U.S. administration. Their foreign policy in the U.S. is prioritized according to their own set of values, which are not shared here.”

A European official acknowledged that the strategy may be dangerous because of risks to the opposition. The official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that it might take years for the opposition effort to yield results, while international concerns about the Iranian nuclear program are immediate.

U.S. officials and their allies believe that Iran is trying to develop expertise to build nuclear weapons, an allegation Tehran denies. A U.N. report last month said its nuclear investigators had found indications of “past or current undisclosed activities” aimed at building weapons.

As Iran has continued its enrichment efforts, there have been increased calls in Washington, including from some congressional Democrats, for the administration to step up support for political change in Iran.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, recently wrote that he no longer supported efforts to engage Iran in talks and wanted Western governments to focus on nonviolent means of promoting political change in Iran.

“The nuclear talks are going nowhere,” he wrote in Newsweek. “Instead we should be focusing on another fact: Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago.”

Special correspondent Rahim Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.