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Engage Iran, Not Ahmadinejad

By Nader Mousavizadeh
Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iran today recalls nothing so much as

Winston Churchill's description of Russia as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

The scenes of democratic defiance playing out in Tehran may yet result in a change more dramatic than any seen there since the 1979 revolution. No one can say with certainty how the regime's multiple centers of power will align at the end of the Islamic republic's most serious crisis of legitimacy.

In the short term, though, President Obama appears to face a poisoned set of choices: Either shun the regime, harden his position and be led down the path of conflict, or go ahead with his stated goal of dialogue with the Ahmadinejad government and provide implicit recognition to a violent usurper.

There is, however, a third option -- one that recognizes America's unique place in Iran's future and can advance our national security interests in a manner consistent with our values. Call it option "Ignore

Ahmadinejad."

The past week has sent two deeply contrasting messages to the United States. In the first, a Green Revolution of citizens yearning for greater freedoms and openness to the West seized on the possibilities of Mir Hossein Mousavi's reformist message, giving the lie to the crude caricature of an Iran bent on a genocidal campaign against the outside world. In the second, a familiar, thuggish representative of the regime's most reactionary elements combined a continuing appeal to Iran's lower classes with transparently dictatorial vote-rigging to ensure four more years of bellicose leadership.

Obama should base his response to Tehran on the first message emanating from Iran's people, and he should discount the second. Before the United States can pursue such a policy, however, it will have to get over its anxiety of influence when it comes to Iran. Concerns that any U.S. statement of support will rekindle resentment toward foreign interference presume that Iranians are unable to distinguish between an enemy and an ally of their democratic aspirations.

More importantly, such diffidence fails to recognize that the United States is indispensable to a peaceful resolution of the security challenge that Iran poses. Even as Washington worries about "meddling," the reality is that there is no one else Iranians want to talk to -- not the Iranian people for whom the outside world largely is synonymous with America; not the Iranian regime for which negotiations with other powers have been mere dress rehearsals for the meeting with the "Great Satan."

Option "Ignore Ahmadinejad" entails a two-pronged approach recognizing the Iranian people's manifest democratic aspirations as well as Iran's long-term strategic interests. It also, crucially, denies Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a starring role opposing the United States on the world stage in the years to come.

First, the administration should provide unequivocal recognition of Iran's popular movement for greater freedoms and openness, and condemn the government's crackdown. Whether an "Obama effect" has been at work in the streets of Tehran the past few days is not important; what matters is that after 30 years, the tired chant of "Death to America" has been replaced by "Death to the dictator." A change is echoing down the capital's boulevards that this U.S. president cannot fail to honor.

Second, the administration should interpret Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's sanction of Ahmadinejad's "victory" as confirmation -- if any was needed -- that the supreme leader is the power that matters in Iran, and, as such, is the person with whom a strategic dialogue should be established. Taking Ahmadinejad's bait for another four years would be both counter-productive and unnecessary. Already, the Obama administration has explored ways to establish a line of communication with Khamenei. Through trusted intermediaries and imaginative diplomacy, opportunities for a direct dialogue with the supreme leader will present themselves. They must be seized.

The key elements of this negotiation are well known: persuading Iran not to weaponize its nuclear program and to urge its allies in Hamas and Hezbollah to pursue their aims through political and not military means. In return, Iran could look forward to acceptance of a legitimate role for itself in regional security and, over time, reintegration into the international community. It is as clear now as it was before last week's voting that such a strategic dialogue, however challenging, is better served by starting with areas of common interest -- such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq -- as opposed to the nuclear dispute. If Iran's true nuclear capabilities remain shrouded in mystery today, its people's intentions regarding a future of greater freedoms and peaceful engagement with the world have never been clearer.

Churchill added a seldom-quoted line to his observation about Russia after describing it as an enigma. He said: "Perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." The same observation may be applied to Iran, and to the United States for that matter. A U.S. policy that deliberately discounts the importance of Ahmadinejad in favor of strong support for the country's democratic forces at the popular level, and direct bilateral negotiations with the supreme leader at the strategic level, has the best chance of creating a diplomatic space in which both countries' core national interests can be addressed peacefully.

The writer, a special assistant to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1997 to 2003, is a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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