U.S. policy on Iran should not waver

Posted June 17, 2009, at 7:35 p.m.

Change in Washington will not meet change in Tehran after all — at least not yet.

Hopes for a new and more open leadership in Iran were dashed by the victory of the hardliners in last weekend’s election. But the Obama administration’s approach to Iran should not change.

The results — a lopsided win for President Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad, announced two hours after 35 million people voted — suggest both massive fraud and fear of an upheaval. After a tumultuous campaign, which generated widespread excitement among Iran’s young populace, the regime was clearly determined to snuff out any momentum for reform.

The outcome confirms that Iran’s “democracy” is still strictly contained by the clerical-military clique at the top. How to account for the result when 70 percent of the populace is under 30, and all reports portrayed the youth, women, and middle class as fed up with Ahmadinejad’s erratic personality, economic failures and anti-Western rants?

But this is not the time for the West, and especially, Washington, to change course. Or resort to bellicosity and threats. It’s time for a steady, clear and tough policy that places our vital interests and reasonable objectives on the table in the form of “a grand bargain” — namely, that in exchange for an end to sanctions, threats of “regime change” and isolation, Iran’s cleritocracy must stop its support for terrorism, efforts to undermine Middle East peace and pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The most sensible approach now would be to say as little as possible until the turmoil over the election sorts itself out. In fact, since the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and the military would still be in charge even if the reformist candidate had won, Western leaders must focus on solidifying their most recent game plan.

The Obama administration has wisely used pre-election months to reshape U.S. policy towards Iran, by offering an open hand and diplomatic talks in a marked shift from Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric. While maintaining a tough position on Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, President Obama made clear his willingness to turn the page and seek common ground on critical issues. There are plenty — from fighting al-Qaida to stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama has promoted a different face of America in his speech in Cairo. With his tough stance on Israeli settlements, he has moved to restore the traditional role of the U.S. as a balanced broker in the Middle East, undercutting the ease with which Iran’s rulers could exploit the plight of the Palestinians. The new president has also sought to strengthen ties with Russia and China, whose Security Council support and readiness to apply them to Iran and North Korea are crucial.

The chief victor in George Bush’s reckless plunge into Iraq has been the mullahs in Iran. Just a quick look at the map is all you need: removal of two enemies, on their doorstep east and west, by the United States.

Despite a relationship bedeviled by two seismic events, the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratic government and Iran’s 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy, there have been several missed opportunities to repair relations. The most promising occurred in 2003 when an overture from Iran’s leaders, who reached out to the U.S. after Sept. 11 and cooperated on political-military strategy in Afghanistan, was rebuffed by Bush.

A wide range of scenarios loom in coming weeks, including escalating confrontation if the hardliners prevail by force, if Israel’s government explores preemption, if Russia decides to play a double game on sanctions. Despite the self-inflicted black eye, the regime is likely to get through the current turmoil because the opposition, while angry and widespread, lacks dynamic leaders, not to mention the muscle. Yet, as President Obama has taken care to not allow the “great Satan” to become a target of the regime, the foundation of U.S. policy on Iran should remain a mix of patience, engagement and pursuit of our strategic national interests.

“We would be well-advised not to stick our oar into that situation right now,” says Laurence Pope, a Middle East expert. “Iran is still going through a long-term process of cultural and political change in trying to come to terms with a collision of Islamic values, Western ideas and modernity.”

If Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger can move to reconcile differences with Red China in the midst of the Vietnam war and the Cold War, a popular American president can find a way to deal with an unpredictable, increasingly isolated — and now clearly unpopular — regime in Iran.

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, including coverage of Iran’s 1979 revolution, and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at hill207@juno.com.

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