Obama Can't Miss Another Opportunity in Iran

Obama blew it in 2009; he can't afford to do so again.

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Robert Zarate is the Policy Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, where Joshua Brewer is a Research Intern

For centuries, leaders of what is now modern-day Iran have evoked the legendary Cyrus Cylinder – the legal instrument dating back to 539 B.C.E. by which Cyrus II, the greatest of the Persian emperors, legitimized his rule, promoted civil and religious tolerance and even permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem, where they would rebuild the Second Temple – as a symbol of national greatness.

In contrast, the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran today have rejected the values of the Cyrus Cylinder and are instead using their defiant march to obtain nuclear technology as a symbol of national greatness. If Iran's theocratic rulers succeed, it would be catastrophic – not only for U.S. and allied security interests and global stability, but for the Iranian people as well.

Despite years of concerted diplomatic and economic pressure by the United States and the international community to compel the regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions, Iran is quickly approaching "breakout nuclear weapons-making capability" – that is, the capability to make nuclear weapons on such short notice that international inspectors would have a hard time catching them in time. Analysts now estimate Iran could reach this point by mid-2014.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Iran is pursuing breakout nuclear weapons-making capability, in no small part, as means to preserve the regime. If the regime in Tehran reaches this capacity, it very well may become emboldened not only to escalate its support of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond, but also to blackmail and coerce concessions from its neighbors and the international community while further stamping out any domestic challenge to its rule.

While the Obama administration and congressional lawmakers have sought to financially squeeze the regime in Tehran, international sanctions – on balance, so far – have not succeeded in persuading Iran from abandoning its nuclear ambitions.

For instance, Iran continues to trade natural gas for precious metals such as gold, namely from Turkey. This influx will not stop until a new set of sanctions comes online this July, which could give Iran sufficient time to stock up on enough economic get-out-of-jail-free cards to reach breakout capacity next year. The eventual cut in gold imports will amplify pressure on the regime.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Consider Military Action to Hinder Iran's Nuclear Program?]

Washington should take further steps to close financial loopholes that allow the regime in Tehran to conduct international transactions in foreign currencies. A bipartisan group of senators led by Senators Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., introduced legislation this week towards that end. The Obama administration and congressional lawmakers should work quickly to implement this critical form of economic pressure.

In addition, Washington should hold the Islamic Republic accountable for abuses in the run up to – and during – Iran's presidential election in June. Regime elites have already stepped up actions to ensure the election of their own chosen leaders. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal noted this week that "[t]he Iranian government has launched a pre-emptive crackdown." This includes Internet blackouts, creating a special cyber-unit to monitor social media sites for opposition gatherings, suspending university classes and arresting a prominent online news editor. Tehran could soon pull the entire country out of the Internet's reach by deploying an Iranian intranet system that can be more easily monitored by government authorities.

The June 2009 Green Movement protests which followed the fraudulent presidential election illustrated the degree of discontent among the Iranian people with the ruling regime. Yet as many thousands of Iranians were silenced and brutally attacked by regime militias and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Obama flatly avoided the issue. Since that summer, Iran has arrested opposition leaders, placed presidential candidates under house arrest and stifled further popular protests against the regime.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Obama should not repeat the mistakes of June 2009 and should make common cause with Iranian reformers, liberals and the broader opposition movement. 2009 was a great mistake for the administration and a missed opportunity for the United States to help the Iranian people, especially when one considers the successful overthrow of autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen one year later. Now that the liberalizing wave of the Arab Spring appears to be stalled, even the slight potential of inciting a Persian Spring should not be missed.

The Cyrus Cylinder teaches us that Persia rose to greatness not through intolerance and suppression, but rather through to its unprecedented respect for other cultures and peoples, including its own. As the world must now reckon with grave and growing threats from the nation that produced the Cyrus Cylinder, it is strange that we must remind Iranian leaders of their own history.

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