The regime in Tehran unfortunately only understands a show of strength and nothing else. The mullahs in Iran know very well which presidential candidate will stand up to them if elected and which candidate will be a softy who literally let's them get away with murder.
I responded to a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the following manner:
I completely agree with Trita Parsi that Iran is neither a complete democracy nor is it a full tyranny. It has instead a system which has elements of both. The US has not worn the mantle of human rights hero for many years. The Arab suspicion from the beginning was that the Iraq War was all about oil, a suspicion that has long since hardened over there into conventional wisdom. The recent retirement announcement of General Counsel of the Department of Defense William J. Haynes II confirms suspicion in many quarters that the US will not treat Guantanamo detainees fairly in their upcoming trials and that the US was simply eliminating an embarrassing symbol of its determination to conduct Soviet-style show trials that are certain to reach unanimously guilty verdicts.
Currently, the US posture of hostility to Iran's government looks to the Iranian people like the posture of a self-interested superpower that cares nothing for the human rights of Iranians. Pumping money into Iranian opposition groups has the effect of discrediting those groups as it allies them with a power that appears to be intent only upon getting ahold of Iran's oil. The US could probably rescue itself from that image by making a clear connection between Iran's respect for human rights and the resulting US posture towards Iran, but it must pursue that policy consistently and must reward good behavior on their part.
If Iranians select better politicians at their polls (Iran has some democratic elements, some pro-human rights politicians have gained office) and the US rewards that behavior by reducing its saber-rattling, then both sides will win and respect for human rights will end up being the winner.
Now, a reasonable person might ask: "The US demonstrated hostility towards the Apartheid regime of South Africa back in the 1980s. What's the difference? Why was saber-rattling hostility good for South Africa then and not good for Iran today?"
The difference, I think, is contained in the old Texas saying "I don't have a dog in that fight." With South Africa, the US didn't have an obvious economic self-interest in having either side prevail. The US could credibly present itself as a disinterested champion of human rights without people accusing it of pursuing policies that would benefit it economically. With Iran today unfortunately, the US simply cannot take the same posture. The US has a very strong economic self-interest in Iran's oil and no amount of speechifying about human rights in Iran will camouflage that.
The only credible policy for the US to take concerning Iran's human rights situation is what I've outlined above. I strongly recommend that the US immediately cease and desist from covertly financing Iranian opposition groups and to work wholly from the outside. Let's not work harder. Let's work smarter. Let's work in a more effective manner.