Clenched fist of Iran spurns Obama's diplomacy

The US president may now step up efforts to support the country's opposition 'green movement'.

With the Obama administration's year-old policy of engagement with Iran hitting a shambolic dead end, the US president is under growing domestic pressure to support the Iranian opposition - a strategy some maintain he has already adopted. But many Iran experts argue that any perceived US outreach to Iran's "green movement" is purely cosmetic. "They [Washington] have to be seen to be doing something," said one London-based Iranian author and analyst. "The Americans' only option is to talk to the Iranians in a serious way as Nixon did to China. That political will is not there. War is not an option and sanctions are not working."

It was a year ago that Mr Obama famously held out the "promise of a new beginning" with the Islamic Republic in an unprecedented message delivered on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. His olive branch - opposed by hawks in Washington - has been rebuffed by the Iranian regime, where hardliners hold power but are on the defensive after the disputed presidential elections in Tehran nine months ago.

Iran also reneged on a deal brokered with world powers last October to defuse the nuclear stand-off. "There was no Plan B if a situation like this arose," said one leading Washington-based Iranian analyst. "There's no clarity in Washington's position, only improvisation." The Los Angeles Times stated last week that, after keeping its distance for months, the Obama administration has concluded that the Iranian opposition movement "has staying power and has embraced it as a central element in the US-led campaign to pressure the country's clerical government" on its nuclear programme.

The newspaper, however, acknowledged that many opposition activists fear Washington's embrace would do them more harm than good. The Tehran regime has cracked down hard on the opposition on the pretext that they are lackeys of enemies such as the US and Britain. Mr Obama has been under "considerable pressure to be seen to take a position" on the Iranian opposition after his attempts to engage Tehran came to a dead end, said Ali Ansari, a leading Iran expert at St Andrews University in Scotland. American hopes that the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's domestic difficulties would force him into a compromise on the nuclear front also have failed.

All this, together with Tehran's hostile anti-American rhetoric, may have persuaded Mr Obama that he has nothing to lose by reaching out to the opposition, Prof Ansari said. "It has the advantage of reassuring the opposition, while at the same time keeping the door open for engagement - albeit of the critical variety." Iranian opposition figures have long insisted that any support from Washington must be moral rather than practical - and that they do not want to be associated with any US agenda in the region.

Many leading lights in the "green" movement are, for instance, sympathetic to Hizbollah: a stance that dismayed hawks in Washington pressing for regime change in Iran when they learnt of it. Iranian opposition figures want Washington to focus on the human rights situation in their country. They argue that the US is playing into Mr Ahmadinejad's hands by instead concentrating on the nuclear issue. That message was reinforced last Friday when a senior aide of Mehdi Karrubi, one of Mr Ahmadinejad's three presidential challengers, addressed journalists at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The aide insisted that Iran's hardline rulers will not blink on the nuclear dispute. But, according to a report on the well-informed Tehran Bureau website, he added: "The nuclear issue will be resolved when Iranian people hold free and fair elections." Some opposition leaders want Mr Obama to send fresh greetings to Iranians for this year's Nowruz on March 21, focusing his message on the scores killed by the regime's security forces since Iran's presidential elections.

The Tehran authorities fear the opposition will attempt to flex their popular muscle on the streets tomorrow when Iranians traditionally mark Charshanbe Souri, an ancient pagan festival that is a prelude to Nowruz. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, yesterday urged Iranians to shun the annual celebrations - on the pretext that they are un-Islamic. Washington seemingly has been more critical of Iran's human rights abuses in recent weeks, while using much harsher rhetoric against the Iranian regime.

The head of the US Central Command, Gen David Petraeus, said last week that Iran was becoming a "thugocracy" in its attempts to suppress popular anger over last year's disputed presidential election. In another indication of warming to the Iranian opposition, Washington has allowed companies such as Google and Microsoft to export free mass-market software to Iran: the internet has been a key tool for those protesting Mr Ahmadinejad's "stolen" re-election.

Washington also insists that the new international sanctions it is seeking over Iran's nuclear programme will not harm ordinary Iranians, but will target the Revolutionary Guards, the elite force that both oversees that programme and the suppression of the opposition. But several Iran analysts told The National that the Obama administration remains reluctant to embrace the Iranian opposition for fear of endangering the movement's independence.

More sceptical observers say Washington has "sacrificed the human rights issue" in favour of trying to cajole powers such as Russia and Brazil to back fresh sanctions against Iran on the nuclear front. The Obama administration has calculated it cannot expect support on both matters, they say. Other Iranians argue that Washington should keep out of their country's internal affairs altogether. "Speaking out against the human rights abuses in Iran - is a principled thing for a US president to do," said Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii.

But she added: "Trying to game Iran's highly contested domestic politics in favour of one group or another is a recipe for failure and has proven at best ineffective and at worst disastrous in the past. There is no reason to think that the Obama administration can do it better than previous administrations."