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How to talk to a regime at war with itself?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

THOUGH STREET demonstrations are fewer, Iran's political crisis appears to be intensifying. Over the weekend several of the Islamic Republic's most senior leaders openly disputed the attempt by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, to end debate about last month's presidential election. One former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said the government had lost the trust of many Iranians. A second, Mohammad Khatami, boldly called for a national referendum on the government's legitimacy. Another attempt by Mr. Khamenei to silence the criticism on Monday merely provoked an outburst from defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who ridiculed the government's propaganda claims that opposition demonstrations had been orchestrated by foreign powers.

"You are facing something new: an awakened nation, a nation that has been born again and is here to defend its achievements," Mr. Mousavi said, according to his Web site. If he's right, the policy of the Obama administration -- which remains doggedly committed to seeking negotiations with the tottering regime -- will have to do more to take that momentous change fully into account.

To be sure, Mr. Obama has recognized that the opposition movement "is on the side of history"; he has publicly adopted a wait-and-see approach about bilateral talks with the hardline government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while joining in a reiterated offer by the five permanent Security Council members and Germany to negotiate with Tehran about its nuclear program. At the recent Group of Eight summit, Mr. Obama suggested that Iran would have until late September, when the U.N. General Assembly meets, to respond to the offer. Mr. Ahmadinejad's foreign minister hinted recently that Tehran would soon put forward a proposal.

Still, it's hard to see how Mr. Khamenei would or could bargain seriously about the nuclear program -- which most in the ruling elite support -- while simultaneously battling to save himself. He might seek talks with the United States and other powers as a way of bolstering his domestic position. Yet he clearly lacks the authority at present to make the sorts of concessions the administration is counting on, even if he wanted to -- and his hardline faction is united, in part, by its unrelenting hostility toward the West.

The administration has felt pressure to move quickly on talks with Iran because of the pace at which Iran is building its nuclear capacity; if there is no progress in the next several months, it plans to seek Security Council support for tougher sanctions. The ongoing power struggle in Tehran doesn't synch with that timetable. But it also seems to offer a considerably better chance for positive change than either negotiations or a sanctions strategy (which very likely would be undermined by Russia). While the administration should remain open to constructive proposals by Iran, it should avoid any action that would lend strength to Mr. Khamenei's regime. And Mr. Obama should continue to make clear that the United States stands with those seeking peaceful and democratic reform. If they do not succeed, neither will any meeting in Geneva.

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