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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn

Posted April 9, 2009 | 10:37 AM (EST)

Obama's Bold Iran Move


The Obama administration's announcement today that it will directly participate in meetings with Iran about its nuclear program is not appeasement or capitulation or kowtowing or any other unflattering term that holdouts on the right will deploy. Instead, it is an overdue move. It isn't America that's put on the spot by Obama's policy shift. It's Iran.

As the New Yorker reports this week, Iran is in ferment. With elections coming up, the religious hardliners are in a tough position. They can't simply reject Obama's overtures out of hand. In essence, Obama is calling the regime's bluff.

It was easy enough to depict George W. Bush as the devil incarnate. But Obama has made it clear that he doesn't regard Iran as the repository of evil, a malignant octopus with tentacles reaching everywhere that must be bludgeoned into submission. Rather, he wants to cut a deal with it, one that, presumably, would ultimately involve the restoration of official relations with Tehran, as he surely hopes to accomplish in the case of Cuba as well.

Whether Iran will strike such a deal is, of course, unclear. But Iran is not a monolith. It has a burgeoning youth population that views America -- at least American culture -- favorably. Furthermore, the lesson of the cold war is that detente rather than isolation and threats can work. Western Europe constructed a web of ties with Eastern Europe that eased suspicions and opened up previously closed societies. The same could happen in Iran.

If the mullahs balk, however, Obama will have made it clear that America wasn't the culprit. If Iran insists on going beyond the limit of being ready to construct a bomb and actually conducts a test, then all bets would be off. Despite the howls of betrayal that will undoubtedly emanate from the right, Obama is pursuing a toughminded course that is both in the moral and strategic interest of America.