Washington DC – “We are not a doctor, and Iran is not a patient,” declared Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. “Iran is a sovereign state whose people are struggling bravely for their own freedom. It is natural and right for us to want to support their struggle. The question is how?”
So began the February 3 hearing, “America and the Iranian Political Reform Movement; First Do No Harm,” before a committee divided along party lines as to what the US should do regarding Iran’s opposition movement. Several members of the minority complained that the concept of “do no harm” was the wrong focus and used the platform to speak out against President Obama’s handling of Iran’s disputed June Iranian elections. Ranking Member Burton stated, “If we don’t give money, if we don’t give tangible support to the people who are demonstrating—we should at least say we wish you success, we want to see freedom ring…and we want to encourage freedom and democracy and the things we believe in.”
“The ‘Green’ Movement is not searching for grand gestures, just modest steps,” stressed Geneive Abdo, Director of the Century Foundation’s Iran Program, one of four experts testifying before the Committee. Instead of overt support, Abdo urged that the US press Iran on human rights violations, help facilitate Internet access for Iranians, and work to pressure companies to stop selling cyber spying and censorship technology to Iran’s government. Abdo also highlighted how Iran’s civil society organizations, such as the One Million Signatures Campaign, “believe that they would benefit from the opportunity to network with other NGOs from the region or from the United States,” though she cautioned against any direct funding from the US government that would carry “the taint of the Democracy Fund”.
Abdo, was joined by Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace (WINEP), who supported the notion that the US should avoid direct support for the opposition, stating “The people involved in this movement believe that democracy is not a gift that can be received by others.” He went on to say that “the Iranian people appreciate President Barak Obama’s policy of not intervening in Iranian political affairs and allowing them to manage their way toward democracy.”
Also on the panel were Dr. Fariborz Ghadar of Center for Strategic International Studies and Scott Carpenter, also from WINEP. Mr. Carpenter was alone among panelists in advocating for direct US assistance to the opposition movement through President Bush’s now defunct Democracy Fund. He also the only panelists to advocate for broad sanctions, such as a gasoline embargo, stating that “a cold winter creates a propitious moment” for gasoline sanctions. Under questioning, he went on to claim that the Green Movement is “open to sanctions that are short and sharp.” When pressed further, he specified that he was talking about the gasoline embargo proposed by Congress. Carpenter did state, however, that the Obama Administration “should make it known publicly that it is currently planning for the eventuality of a democratic government” and is preparing “the necessary legal groundwork to lift sanctions and remove Iran from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.”
Dr. Ghadar stressed that the US should lift sanctions on civilian aircraft parts, a sanction that ultimately harms ordinary Iranians. “In my opinion, trade sanctions aren’t effective,” Ghadar declared. “They hurt the population. I constantly hear about airplanes falling from the sky and they blame us for not being able to get components from Boeing.” He also asserted that “sanctions that hurt the people will ultimately hurt us,” and have benefited the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
During questioning, Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) stressed the need to avoid a “meat-cleaver approach” in supporting Iran’s opposition and asked the panel for feedback on his bill, the Stand with the People of Iran Act (SWIPA). The panelists expressed support for the bill, which would enable American NGOs to work with Iranians and would sanction human rights abusers and companies that provide cyber censorship technology to Iran’s government. Abdo stated that the bill was “perfect “ in that it offered “practical recommendations that are tangible and that wouldn’t necessarily taint the movement.”