What Is Iran Afraid Of?

Forget sanctions; forget bombing. Tehran’s worst fear is a human rights campaign.

Protesters in Iran

It’s an odd thing about Iran, but sometimes I could swear there are two of them. On the one hand, there is the Iran of the nuclear issue, the Iran analyzed by security experts, the Iran covered by the White House press corps. This is the Iran that made the news last week when President Barack Obama revealed the existence of yet another hidden Iranian nuclear reactor, the Iran that will be judged by the U.N. Security Council this Thursday.

At the same time, there is another Iran—a completely different country, as it were. This is the Iran of the democracy movement, the Iran analyzed by human rights activists, the Iran covered by the sort of journalist who takes covert photographs with a cell phone. This is the Iran that made the news last week when protesters turned a government-controlled anti-Israel march into a spontaneous anti-government demonstration.

The people who care about this second Iran are rarely much interested in the first one—and vice versa. The two groups sometimes seem almost antagonistic. When demonstrations exploded across Iran after the June 12 elections, for example, there were many well-meaning people who urged the U.S. president to distance himself from both the riots and the rioters, at least partly on the grounds that any involvement might affect his ability to deal with the nuclear issue. Indeed, that choice seemed to suit President Obama, a highly rational man who clearly dislikes fuss, mess, and emotional upheaval. At that time, the White House made a choice: It would deal with the Iran described by security experts and leave the other Iran to sort itself out. Iranian human rights issues, Iranian democracy—these were domestic matters, the president’s men concluded. And they repeated their offer to meet Iran’s leaders.

Nothing came of that offer, of course, because Iran is not two countries. It is one country. And the people who make decisions about Iran’s nuclear program are the same people who order the arrest, torture, and murder of dissidents. Indeed, one can learn quite a lot about how these Iranian decision-makers will behave abroad by observing their behavior at home. For example, it is unlikely that a regime that publicly and repeatedly describes its opponents as American stooges and British spies is going to change its tune and cooperate with America or Britain. At the same time, a regime under immense political pressure that is losing its legitimacy is not in a good position to break any new diplomatic ground and is therefore unlikely to end its nuclear program any time soon.

If that sounds bleak, it doesn’t have to. For the observation that Iran is one country also suggests that the West has some foreign-policy tools in Iran that it has not yet seriously tried to use. Many, many security experts over the last several days have again pointed out that we don’t have many good options once we officially declare that Iran plans to build a nuclear bomb. There are sanctions, which probably won’t work; there are bombing raids, which might not hit all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, given how many appear to be secretly hidden inside mountains; and there is war, which would be a catastrophe.

Very few security experts point out that there is another option. What do Iran’s rulers truly fear, after all? I’ll wager it’s not sanctions, and it might not be a bombing raid. An economic boycott can be circumvented, after all, with the help of Venezuela or maybe the Russian mafia, and an attack on Iranian soil might help the regime once again consolidate power. By contrast, a sustained and well-funded human rights campaign must be a truly terrifying prospect. What if we therefore told the Iranian regime that its insistence on pursuing nuclear weapons leaves us with no choice other than to increase funding for dissident exile groups, to smuggle money into the country, to bombard the airwaves with anti-regime television programming, and above all to publicize widely the myriad crimes of the Islamic Republic of Iran? What if President Obama held up a photograph of Neda, the young girl murdered by Iranian authorities, at his next press conference? What if he did that at every press conference? I bet that would unnerve President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader far more than the loss of some German machine tool imports or Dutch tomatoes.

I do realize that many will roll their eyes at these suggestions and argue, as the Obama administration did this summer, that an aggressive focus on Iran’s mass human rights violations would allow the regime to cry “foreign meddling” and attack its opponents as foreign spies. But so what? They do that already. Given the potential for disaster that lurks behind almost every other policy option, we certainly have nothing to lose by trying.