February 18, 2010

Tear Down This Firewall

Roger Cohen, the intrepid NYTimes columnist stationed in Iran before, during and after last June’s tumultuous presidential election, took aim at the conventional wisdom among Washington’s Iran policy circles with this, in his column today:

[S]anctions will feel cathartic, satisfy the have-to-do-something itch in the Congress, and change nothing. I’m just about resigned to that. But there is a smarter approach to Iran: Instead of constraining trade, throw it open.

Rather than imposing new sanctions on the twelve square inches of Iran that we haven’t already targeted, Cohen says the US should instead lift restrictions on Internet technology exports for Iranians who will use them to exercise their right to free speech.
Savvy readers of niacINsight will note that this idea has been around for a couple of months — Rep. Jim Moran introduced the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act in December.  But Cohen is correct in noting that since then, nothing has happened. Even despite a formal letter from the State Department, essentially endorsing this very same idea, the sanctions remain in place.
And there are real consequences for that: Google and Microsoft’s instant messenger programs remain blocked by US regulations.  SourceForge, the valuable open source programming platform, has restricted all access to Iranian users.  And the Iranian government continues to censor, filter, and monitor the Internet as part of its campaign of repression.
So for policymakers desperate to “do something” about Iran, this is an eminently practical first step.
Update: Lara Friedman, over at Americans for Peace Now, also made the connection between Cohen’s piece and recent legislation aimed at relaxing pressure on the Iranian people.

Those of us who oppose efforts to impose “crippling sanctions” on the Iranian people – an approach supported by many in Congress (and most of the Jewish community) are often belligerently asked: “if you don’t support these sanctions, what is your alternative?”  The implication being that if we can’t propose another course of action then we must support the crippling sanctions, even if nearly everyone agrees that such sanctions won’t work and will likely prove counterproductive.
This is of course a silly argument – imagine two doctors arguing about how to treat a patient: Doctor 1: “We’ve tried everything we can think of and he’s not getting better, so I propose we try radiation.”  Doctor 2: “Are you nuts?  Given his condition, all medical science points to the fact that radiation won’t do anything to help him and will almost certainly make him worse”  Doctor 1: “Well, unless you have a better idea you have no choice but to accept my recommendation.” Doctor 2: “Where did you get your medical degree??”
But imaginary dialogues aside, there are some sanctions that actually make sense.  For example, it seems self-evident that it makes sense to impose sanctions on those who are enabling Iran to block the internet, censor electronic communications, and otherwise interfere with the ability of Iranian citizens to communicate with each other and the outside world (anyone remember the term “twitter revolution?”)
To which I think most people would reply: great idea!  Someone in Congress should get working on this!

Fortunately, as Lara points out, some in Congress already did!  Both the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act and the Stand with the Iranian People Act take practical steps to increase pressure on human rights violators in Iran while simultaneously decreasing pressure on the Iranian population.
That, my friends, is called “the prudent use of American smart power.”

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