One comment from a reader claiming to be in Tehran struck us all today. A translation follows:
“I am in Tehran. Its 3:40 in the morning. I’ve connected with you [by hacking past the government filter]. It’s a big mess here. People are yelling from their houses – ‘death to the dictator.’ They are setting up a military government. No one dares to go out. No one has seen Mousavi today. Rumor has it that they have arrested him. I don’t have an email but I will contact you again.
The comment begs a critical question: How do we help the Iranian people during this tumultuous time? Many Iranian Americans are mobilizing and plan to demonstrate outside the Iranian Interest Section in Washington (inside the Pakistani embassy) tomorrow at 11am.
American policy makers will feel the need to react. But they need to remember this isn’t about us. This is about Iran and Iranians seeking the right to determine their own future. The United States can help little and harm much by interjecting itself into the process. The Obama administration’s approach to the election — keeping its comments low-key and not signaling support for any candidate — was exactly the right approach. While tempting, empty and self-serving rhetorical support for Iranians struggling for more freedoms serves only to aid their opponents. History has made Iran wary of foreign meddling, and American policy-makers in particular must be sensitive to giving hardliners any pretense to call reform-minded Iranians foreign agents. That’s why Iran’s most prominent reformers, including Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, have said the best thing the U.S. can do is step back and let Iran’s indigenous human rights movement progress on its own, without overt involvement from the U.S–however well intentioned.
The policy tool Washington is most comfortable with, broad-based economic sanctions, do little to hurt the elites and government in power and do much to hurt the Iranian people. They give the government a convenient scapegoat for its own economic mismanagement, while strengthening the control of the IRGC and Iranian elites over the economy at the expense of Iran’s middle class.
The unfortunate reality is that while we seek to help, our options are limited for the time being.