By JAY SOLOMONWASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is increasingly questioning the long-term stability of Tehran's government and moving to find ways to support Iran's opposition "Green Movement," said senior U.S. officials.
The White House is crafting new financial sanctions specifically designed to punish the Iranian entities and individuals most directly involved in the crackdown on Iran's dissident forces, said the U.S. officials, rather than just those involved in Iran's nuclear program.
In recent weeks, senior Green Movement figures -- who have been speaking at major Washington think tanks -- have made up a list of IRGC-related companies they suggest targeting, which has been forwarded to the Obama administration by third parties.
Names on the list include Iran's largest telecommunications provider, Telecommunication Company of Iran, which is majority-owned by the IRGC, and the Iranian Aluminum Co. A U.S. official involved in Iran said the administration wouldn't comment on whether it was acting on the information.
American diplomats, meanwhile, have begun drawing comparisons in public between Iran's current political turmoil and the events that led up to the 1979 overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi.
"In my opinion there are many similarities," the State Department's chief Iran specialist, John Limbert, told Iran-based listeners this week over U.S. government-run Radio Farda. "I think it's very hard for the government to decide how to react to the legitimate and lawful demands of the people."
Since the opposition movement's demonstrations recently peaked after the death of reformist Islamic cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a number of Iran scholars in the U.S. said they have been contacted by senior administration officials eager to understand if the Iranian unrest suggested a greater threat to Tehran's government than originally understood.
In a signal of the White House's increased attention to Iran's political upheaval, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gathered over coffee at the State Department this week with four leading Iran scholars and mapped out the current dynamics, said U.S. officials. One issue explored was how the U.S. should respond if Tehran suddenly expressed a desire to reach a compromise on the nuclear issue. Mrs. Clinton asked whether the U.S. could reach a pact without crippling the prospects for the Green Movement.
U.S. allies are mixed in their response to the new focus. One senior Arab official said he told State Department officials this week they were deluded if they though Iran was close to experiencing a revolution reminiscent of the Shah's overthrow. "The IRGC has its hands on the Iranian people," the official said.
Israel, which faces the greatest security threat from Iran, says only widespread sanctions will effectively upend Tehran's current political leadership. "Many Israeli experts have concluded that expansive sanctions will widen the schisms between the Iranian government and its people," said Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.
Senior U.S. officials stressed in interviews this week that President Barack Obama isn't moving toward seeking a regime change as its policy for Iran. Rather, these officials said, Washington remains committed to a dual-track approach of pursuing dialogue aimed at ending Iran's nuclear program while applying increasing financial pressure if the talks fail.
Both the Obama administration and the Iranian dissidents have been wary of any direct contacts, due to fears such meetings could provide ammunition for Tehran. The regime and its supporters continue to put harsh pressure on the Green Movement; on Friday, progovernment demonstrators shot at a car carrying a leading opposition figure, Mahdi Karroubi. He escaped without harm, his Web site reported later.
Still, the White House's re-evaluation of the Green Movement marks a significant evolution of Mr. Obama's Iran policy since demonstrators began openly challenging President Ahmadinejad's re-election in June, said diplomats and analysts.
"The Green Movement has demonstrated more staying power than perhaps some have anticipated," said a senior U.S. official. "The regime is internally losing its legitimacy, which is of its own doing."
The White House initially displayed caution in lending any vocal support to Iranian protesters, as many U.S. and European officials believed Tehran's security forces would quickly suppress any wide-scale dissent. U.S. officials repeatedly stressed over the summer that the U.S. was prioritizing efforts to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear program over any rapid push for democratic change.
The U.S. response was so timid that some Iranian protesters openly challenged Mr. Obama. "Obama, Obama -- either with us, or with them!" Tehran demonstrators were recorded chanting in November.
U.S. officials say that the White House's policy has shifted, in part, due to the surprising resilience of the Green Movement in the face of the pervasive crackdown.
The Obama administration has increasingly voiced support for human rights in Iran as the demonstrations have continued. Mr. Obama used his Nobel Prize acceptance speech last month to forcefully call for the respect of human rights and civil liberties.
U.S. officials cite the White House's public mourning of Mr. Montazeri's death as perhaps the pivotal step in trying to forge common cause with the opposition.
"Do we expect the current government to be overthrown? I wouldn't say that at the current time," said a senior State Department official. "But a crack can certainly grow over time."
Write to Jay Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org