Republican presidential hopefuls loudly called for increased support of opposition groups trying to overthrow the Islamic government of Iran at last weekend's debate, slamming the Obama administration's current policy as its "greatest failing."
But by emphasizing their support of Iranian opposition groups in such a public way, the GOP candidates could do more harm than good, experts say.
Speaking at the CBS/National Journal foreign policy debate on Saturday night, GOP candidates like former pizza magnate Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney agreed that supporting opposition in Iran was one way to help prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon. While this strategy may prove effective if done covertly, if taken public, one national security expert argues that such actions could be detrimental to the dissidents' status in Iran. [Read: Foreign Policy Debate a Battle of Rhetoric Vs. Reality.]
"The best thing the United States can do is support those opposition elements which have the most credibility very quietly. Anything we do openly that gives it a high profile tends to deprive them of legitimacy. It indicates that basically they are clients of the United States," says Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Even among the Iranians that want the regime to go, they don't want to see a United States-backed group."
Unlike in Libya where the National Transitional Council emerged earlier this year as the organized rebel movement against Col. Muammar Qadhafi's regime, Iran so far lacks any obvious, tightly-organized opposition within the country, raising questions about which dissident groups GOP candidates would support if elected.
Cain was first of the GOP candidates to suggest supporting Iran's opposition on Saturday.
"The first thing that I would do is to assist the opposition movement in Iran, that's trying to overthrow the regime," he said. "Our enemies are not the people of Iran, it's the regime." [Read Ken Walsh: GOP Candidates Refuse to Give Up.]
Cain was referring to the opposition movement in general, rather than any specific group within the country, says his campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon. Cain is prepared to support opposition movements both publicly and covertly, Gordon says, adding, "The Iranian people are not our enemy. The enemy is the regime. And that's the point he was making."
Romney also argued on behalf of the anti-regime groups in Iran, criticizing the Obama administration for not being more vocal in its support.
"What he should have done is speak out when dissidents took the streets and say, 'America is with you.' And work on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents," he said during the debate.
Lobbying efforts by the Iranian anti-government group the People's Mujahedin, or the MEK—which is now listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization—have created the impression in Washington and among some policymakers that the group should have U.S. support, Cordesman says. While the MEK is the most obvious anti-Tehran group, Cordesman says incidences of violence in the MEK's past, as well as its alignment with the former regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, undercut the group's credibility, especially within Iran's borders. [Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.]
The United States, he says, could alternatively help other more credible nongovernmental organizations based in and out of Iran, if it's done covertly.
While it may be useful political posturing on behalf of the presidential candidates to criticize Obama for not backing Iranian dissidents, the reality is that the current administration would probably keep any support—most likely financial support—away from public view.
It's not new, Cordesman says, for politicians to make such arguments in order to appear to take a stronger stand than their opponents. "The clear implication here is we aren't doing it," he says, referring to claims about the current administration's support for dissidents. "The probable reality is that we are. But advertising it in the process of a presidential campaign may not be the best way to be effective."