The reform movement in Iran has clearly hit a new level, but the future is uncertain. The key issue is whether spontaneous protests crystallize into sustained dissent that involves the middle class. There are no cracks yet in the Iranian government's domestic security forces—a common criterion for successful, bottom-up challenges to totalitarian regimes. But the Obama administration can take steps right now and in the months ahead to open a "second channel" to Iran—this one to its people directly—and improve the chances of real change.
The election held last Friday was a carefully controlled process that allowed only candidates approved by religious authorities to seek office. Nonetheless, it seems clear that many and likely most Iranians cast votes for challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi and against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Helping the Iranian people change a government they appear increasingly to loathe will not reduce American standing in the world. To the contrary, President Barack Obama has the chance now to break the string of slow U.S. government responses to moments of democratic opportunity and peril. Examples of lackluster responses include those after Tibet's 2008 widespread protests, the run-up to the 2005 Egyptian presidential elections, and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, to name just a few.
First, Mr. Obama should contact Mr. Mousavi to signal his interest in the situation and Mr. Mousavi's security. Our own experience with dissidents around the world is that proof of concern by the U.S. government is helpful and desirable. The administration was wise to send Vice President Joe Biden to Beirut on the eve of the Lebanese elections, and his presence there helped galvanize the anti-Hezbollah coalition. Mr. Obama's political capital in the region has only expanded since his June 4 Cairo address. If Mr. Mousavi deems talking to the American president not to be politically helpful, then he can refuse the call. But that should be a judgment for him to make.
Second, Mr. Obama should deliver another taped message to the Iranian people. Only this time he should acknowledge the fundamental reality that the regime lacks the consent of its people to govern, which therefore necessitates a channel to the "other Iran." He should make it clear that dissidents and their expatriate emissaries should tell us what they most need and want from the U.S. This could consist of financial resources, congresses of reformers, workshops or diplomatic gatherings. The key is to let the reformers call the shots and indicate how much and what U.S. assistance they want. Simply knowing we care, that we are willing to deploy resources and are watching their backs—to the extent we can—often helps reformers.
The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine is a model. In that case the West joined Ukrainians in refusing to accept the results of a stolen election. This combined effort helped to force a final run-off vote that reflected the people's will. In Iran, this would mean not only redoing elections but also allowing a full field of candidates to run. As with Ukraine and the Soviet Union before, Mr. Obama could at least make it clear that the U.S. will separate the issues of engagement and legitimacy. Our engagement of the Soviet Union in arms-control talks did not prevent us from successfully pressing human-rights issues and seeking an alternative political structure. So it can be with Iran. Engagement without an effort to talk to the "other Iran" would not only be a travesty but tactically foolish as well.
Third, the president should direct U.S. ambassadors in Europe and the Gulf to meet with local Iranian anti-regime expatriates. From London to Dubai there are large Iranian communities throughout Europe and the Persian Gulf. The symbolism of this would be powerful, but this should be more than just a photo-op. Expatriates tend to know far more about their countries than even our intelligence experts—and they could help guide efforts to aid reform.
Fourth, additional funding should be provided immediately for Radio Farda, an effective Persian-language radio, Internet and satellite property of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Farda helps Iranians get the information and analytical context that is often denied to them by their own government.
Fifth, the administration should take steps to give Iranian reformers and dissidents a level playing field with the regime in the battle of ideas. Just as providing photocopiers and fax machines helped Solidarity dissidents in communist Poland in the 1980s, today's reformers need access to the Web and other means of communication. Grants should be given to private groups to develop and field firewall-busting technology.
Money should be appropriated for an NGO-run "open window" platform that enables a wide variety of indigenous voices to be carried on radio, blogs, video clips and other media. This can take the form of satellite and terrestrial broadcasting and other information tools to provide Iranians with anonymous communications and access to Internet, television and radio content that their government attempts to deny them. The president should also call a White House meeting of the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Google and other video-sharing and social-networking companies. Entrepreneurially minded high-tech companies can manage this project better than the government. Many of these CEOs are strong supporters of Mr. Obama; they should be brought on board to help make his foreign policy succeed. In the meantime, the president should order the military to make some of its EC-130 "Commando Solo" aircraft, which serve as flying television and radio stations, available to enable reformers and protest leaders to speak directly to the Iranian people.
None of this is tantamount to "imposing democracy." All the U.S. would be doing is signaling to reformers they can count on our support when they want it and backing up our words with resources. An approach like this would be consistent with the foreign policies of American presidents of both parties since Theodore Roosevelt. It is also in line with the message articulated by Mr. Obama earlier this month in Cairo, when he said that various rights we possess "are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."
Mr. Senor is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Whiton is policy adviser to the Foreign Policy Initiative. They served as officials in the administration of George W. Bush at Central Command in Qatar, with the Coalition in Iraq, and at the State Department.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.