The Islamic Republic is now intensifying its ideological assault on Iran’s embattled democrats and reformists through a “soft war” or aggressive campaign of countersubversion. This battle for hearts and minds not only involves closing opposition publications and web sites, but placing Basij militia instructors in schools, giving the Revolutionary Guard more control over media , and greater surveillance of the Internet.
“The enemy has put soft war on its agenda and the top priority today is to fight the soft war,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state TV at a meeting with Revolutionary Guard and Basij leaders.
The strategy may enjoy some initial success in silencing voices for change, but its long-term prospects are dubious, analysts suggest.
“By trying to gain more control of the media, to re-Islamize schools, they think they can make a comeback,” says Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert at Syracuse University. “But the enemy here is Iran’s demographics. The Iranian population is overwhelmingly literate and young, and previous efforts to reinstall orthodoxy have only exacerbated cleavages between citizens and the state.”
Violence, show trials and incarcerations may have taken some of the momentum from Iran’s Green protest movement, but its recent successes in hijacking the regime’s officially-sanctioned demonstrations confirmed that it has not been suppressed.
News that the regime is defying the international community by accelerating its nuclear program has cast further doubt on the likely efficacy of engaging Tehran. The West in general and the Obama administration in particular have been criticized for neglecting Iran’s opposition for fear of offending or alienating the Islamic Republic, but solidarity with the green protesters appears increasingly attractive and feasible.
Nuclear experts tell us that if all went really well it could be a decade or more before any new uranium enrichment sites come online – and probably much longer, given Iran’s slow track record. This leaves plenty of time for the development of a viable political alternative by Iranians.
“If foreign governments deal only with the atomic bomb and forget about democracy and human rights in Iran, they will help dictatorship,” says Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an exiled representative of the green movement.
The opposition supports “smart sanctions” targeted at the Revolutionary Guards and other bastions of the regime. The hard-line Guards are estimated to control as much as 40% of Iran’s economy.
Many Washington analysts, including some within government, who believe that the opposition movement is “either dead or does not deserve to be taken seriously,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
While sympathetic to claims that explicit support might undermine the opposition and feed regime claims that it is a creature of foreign powers, eh supports an adjustment to the US administration’s approach.
“We should certainly refrain from employing policies that dampen the momentum of the green movement, or alter its trajectory,” he said. “This means treading carefully on ‘engagement,’ broadening the conversation beyond just nukes and avoiding military confrontation.”
The Obama administration should use the European Union, Iran’s largest trading partner, to engage the regime while also supporting the opposition, say Paula J. Dobriansky, U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs from 2001 to 2009, and former State Department official Christian P. Whiton. The democratic West should be doing more “to engage and cultivate this newly vocal ‘other Iran,’ sustaining its calls for a democratically chosen government,” they write.
History confirms that it is possible to pursue a twin-track strategy, negotiating nuclear security issues while pressing for democratic reform. “Some of the West’s greatest strides in arms control with the former Soviet Union, for example, came in the 1980s, when the West was pushing the country hardest on human rights issues,” they note.