Obama's Iran Dilemma: Human Rights or Nuclear Negotiations?

The U.S. should strongly condemn Tehran's reckless behavior, but it should not forget that Iran is closer to a vibrant democracy than most dictatorships that have good relationships with the West.
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It took more than six months for the White House to "strongly condemn" the excessive use of force against the protesters in Tehran, and God knows how long it will take President Obama to conclude that compromising universal values, including human rights, at the expense of erratic negotiations with the Iranian government. It will not change the behavior of the Iranian government although it will undermine America's moral authority.

However, President Obama has been forced into a nuanced foreign policy dilemma due to Iran's disappointing response to the 5+1 nuclear offer, and its reckless behavior towards the Iranian people after the disputed June 12 elections.

Iran's nuclear ambitions are a matter of international security, which President Obama has chosen to deal with through diplomacy and negotiations. His cautious reaction to Iran's post-election unrest demonstrated a hesitance in order to prevent endangering the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. But the Iran with which Obama tried to promote dialogue during his 2008 presidential campaign is now not the same Iran that feared an imminent attack by the United States during the George Bush era.

Iranian leadership in 2009 now faces a decisive legitimacy crisis within the country. For the Iranian leaders, the issue of regime survival is more crucial than any international relations breakthrough. Particularly with the new generation of leaders in Tehran, mainly Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard commanders, who are local politicians who barely identify with international politics and lack a clear perception of Iran's national interests.

Unlike Obama, who might be very reluctant to pick any path except negotiations to deal with Iran, particularly as a Noble Peace Laureate, many in charge in Tehran look for the opposite. In fact, with the continuous bloody domestic upheaval in Iran, negotiation with the United States, particularly if it follows any compromise from the Iranian side, may lead the regime to the verge of collapse.

Any international crisis, such as the possibility of attack on Iran's nuclear facilities or even the attack itself, for the Iranian leaders is assurance of survival; mainly because they will use it as an excuse to suppress their opponents more than ever and rally people behind the flag to defend the country.

Whether the Obama administration strongly condemns the use of excessive force in response to the human rights violations in Iran or chooses silence for the sake of maintaining nuclear negotiations the leaders in Tehran do not care.

It's very likely that the Iranian government will double or triple its efforts to develop its nuclear program in order to reach the "irreversible point", although Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said that Iran has already reached it.

It's also very likely that hard-line leaders who run the show in Tehran will continue to intensify the crackdown on the opposition and that this past bloody Sunday might be just the beginning. The assassination of Mousavi's nephew was an attempt by the Iranian government to signal the opposition leaders to give up. The arrest of Noble Peace Laureate, Shirin Ebadi's sister on Monday was another attempt to pressure Iran's most outspoken human rights defender. The increase in targeted killings and arbitrary arrests indicate that the Iranian government is determined to stop people at any cost, rather than listening to them or compromising.

Why this unrelenting tactic? The answer is simple: six months ago people were questioning the result of the presidential elections, but now they are challenging the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Unlike the Shah who had the option to flee Iran to the United States with a warm welcome by the West, today's Iranian leaders are not safely welcomed anywhere in the world. They are fighting down a dead-end street and that makes it very hard to imagine that they will give up.

The United States should strongly condemn the reckless behavior of the government in Tehran and outwardly support the struggle for human rights, justice, and democracy -- not a particular side. We should not forget that Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East, along with Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, where a free and fair election can prevent Islamic fundamentalists from coming to power. In fact, Iran is closer to a vibrant democracy than most of the dictatorships that have good relationships with the West.

For the people in the Middle East, history is not just stories of the past. They live history. Now the United States will have to decide which side of history it wants to stand on.

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