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. ~The Wall Street Journal

This is why correctly assessing the strength and potential of the Green movement matters for U.S. policy. Misreading the situation and concluding that the current Iranian government is weakening lead to adopting one set of policy options rather than another. If they are based on questionable assumptions, and they certainly seem to be, these may prove to be entirely wrong as far as advancing U.S. interests is concerned. One of the unnamed scholars quoted in the article said of officials in the administration, “There’s realization now that this unrest really matters.” What if this “realization” is mistaken and the unrest is not going to have much effect? What if the “realization” is a belated acquiescence to domestic political criticism rather than a careful analysis of what is actually happening?

What seems to be happening is that the administration is gradually abandoning its proper reticence and correct hands-off approach to the Iranian protests on the mistaken assumption that the Green movement is resilient mostly because it has not failed entirely. Having decided to give up on non-interference, the administration nonetheless waited seven months to do something, which means that it has probably opted to involve itself at the moment when the Green movement is already faltering. The first instinct to remain uninvolved and largely silent was the right one. This gave the movement its best chance of flourishing on its own, and it has also allowed us to see the limits of the movement. Now that the movement seems to be losing steam, Washington is coming to provide it with the sort of “help” that is more likely to discredit it and smother it completely.

It seems now that the movement was going to peter out gradually one way or the other, but by involving itself now the administration will make both a policy and a political mistake. It is jeopardizing any remaining chance that engagement with Tehran might yield something, and it is taking what is most likely the losing side in an internal Iranian political fight, and having involved itself the administration will receive a share of the blame for what was already going to happen. The administration will be pilloried from the right for “dithering” and taking too long to act, it will be blamed by human rights groups for not doing enough, and it will lose the sympathy of many advocates of engagement who will object to squandering an opportunity to advance U.S. interests for the sake of yet another misguided, unrealistic democratist effort. Having done its best to resist the siren song of democratist claptrap, the administration will allow an unrelated internal political issue to hijack its entire Iran policy. Instead of laying the groundwork for repairing relations with Tehran, the administration will deepen mistrust of the U.S. and reinforce the position of the most paranoid Iranian hard-liners, which will not serve U.S. interests and which will certainly not be good for other elements in Iran’s government and political life.