A s Iran's government shoots protesters in the streets and jails prominent political dissidents, calls are escalating for President Barack Obama to be more aggressive in confronting Tehran. Such an escalation might go a long way toward satisfying an enthralled U.S. audience, but the risks outweigh the benefits in terms of keeping Iran's protest movement alive. Obama is correct to exercise extreme caution.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the senior clerics backing his government probably will embark in coming days on an international campaign to legitimize what they claim is his re-election victory.
Look for promises of cheaper oil or signs of increased diplomatic activity involving China, Russia, Venezuela and Iran's Persian Gulf neighbors. There might even be hints of increased Iranian willingness to negotiate with Western countries, including the United States, to help resolve longstanding differences over Iran's uranium-enrichment program or security issues involving Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.
This wouldn't mean Iran is actually prepared to make any new concessions. But the effect would be to show that the world is engaging with Ahmadinejad's government and, therefore, recognizing his "rightful" claim to power. Nothing could do more to crush the protesters' morale than to think the world has lost interest and is back to business as usual.
At the same time, Iranians are particularly skittish about any appearance of U.S. meddling in their internal affairs. If Obama criticizes too aggressively, he risks justifying harsher crackdown measures by helping the regime assert that the protests are part of a U.S. plot.
Now, more than ever, it is crucial for the United States to play a quiet but active diplomatic role in helping to isolate Ahmadinejad's regime. This means letting other nations, such as Britain and France, take the lead in condemning Tehran publicly, so that Washington can work behind the scenes.
The time is optimal for the White House to press China and Russia for harsher U.N. economic sanctions on Iran for failing to curtail its uranium-enrichment program. Two years ago, when Iran imposed gasoline rationing amid a nationwide shortage of imported fuel, rioting erupted on the streets of Tehran. Tighter sanctions today would have the effect of a one-two punch, adding widespread consumer dissatisfaction to the existing tensions over this month's presidential elections.
The French ambassador to Washington, Pierre Vimont, told us last week that the situation is ripe for exploitation. Restricting Iran's imports of refined petroleum products "could have an immediate and very direct effect on the everyday life of the population. They will suffer," he said. With tighter sanctions, "the unpopularity of the regime would grow. This is maybe one reason why the regime may ... show some opening, because they could be fearful of that."
Obama should steer away from any action that could inadvertently snuff out the biggest protest movement Iran has seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution. By playing the protests cautiously and strategically, Washington has the best hope of keeping Ahmadinejad where he needs to be - off balance.