Engage Iran's Citizens, Isolate Its Government

08/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Vacillating bolsters the fundamentalist Ayatollahs.

When it comes to grappling with the challenges posed by events in Iran, the Obama administration seems to be at sea. President Obama cited "fixed national security interests" on July 4th as the basis of negotiating with Iran's government despite its increasing unpopularity. A day later, while reaffirming "we will engage," Vice President Biden raised once more the prospect of a preemptive strike by Israel against Iran. Not to be outdone, Secretary of State Clinton while also endorsing "a policy of engagement" muddied the waters further by commenting that if Iran's government did not cooperate "we would ask the world to join us in imposing even stricter sanctions." Essentially the U.S. government lays right where the Iranian hard-liners have placed it with thirty years of intransigence -- uncertain of how to act and ever-hopeful of cooperation.

Realpolitik is not always the best path forward. Negotiating with an Iranian regime that lacks credibility among its own people would be tantamount to conferring international legitimacy upon it. If repression does not curtail negotiations with the current Iranian government at this time, then the United States and its allies will be demonstrating yet again to the Iranian people that the West's strategic interests take precedence to all else. Moreover the United States and its friends will lose twice over for, based on past experience, dialogue with Iran's present leadership is unlikely to produce mutually beneficial results.

Essential changes are underway inside Iran, initiated and sustained by its citizens. Perhaps the emerging coalition of pragmatic mullahs, moderate politicians, economically-strained entrepreneurs, democratic-minded men and women, and activist university students will prevail over fundamentalism. Those social groups played pivotal roles during Iran's Constitutional Revolution in 1906 and Islamic Revolution in 1979. If not now, then in the future, Iranians will succeed -- only they can change their government.

President Obama mentioned an important notion by the medieval Persian poet Sa'di in a video message to the Iranian people for their recent New Year, "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence." Iranians interpreted Obama's presentation as a statement of solidarity with their aspirations. The United States of America and its partners now cannot afford to not heed the subsequent line of that same verse, "When calamitous times afflict one limb, the other limbs cannot remain inactive." The horrific yet hopeful events in Iran have created an opportunity for western leaders to be politically and morally forceful.

So how should the United States and its allies proceed? The Obama administration and its foreign partners need to concentrate on tangibly engaging Iran's people while strategically isolating that country's hard-line leaders.

First, the United States and its partners could expand information flow, interpersonal contact, and economic cooperation with the Iranian people. Iran's ruling xenophobes seek to isolate their citizens. An open society is the most serious threat to those extremists' authority, generating conditions under which close-minded ideas will be rejected. USAID grants to support civil society and rule of law in Iran together with the Near Eastern Regional Democracy Initiative are beginnings in that direction. So are educational exchanges with American universities. Non-military and non-nuclear commercial ventures should be encouraged as well, for the positive effects of technology among Iran's people have become vividly evident. Facilitating Iranians in their quest to create an open society will encourage dialogue with the West.

Second, Iran's fundamentalist and militant leaders can be held responsible for crimes against their people. U.S. President Obama, French President Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Brown, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban have taken initial steps by condemning the brutal crackdown. Placing tougher travel, communication, technology, and financial restrictions specifically upon high-level Iranian officials and their repressive organizations, via the U.N. Security Council and through multilateral arrangements, would spotlight the unlawful nature of their actions. Even if only partially effective, selective sanctions on the leadership will be appreciated by most other Iranians who have suffered so much for so long.

Third, concerted effort should be directed at attenuating ties between hardliners in Iran and members of Hezbollah and Hamas. Reports suggest that foreign Arab fighters provided assistance recently in quashing the Iranian people's fundamental rights. Attempts by the Iranian government to step-up aiding those militant groups, largely to shore up its own image across the Middle East, will occur. Such ventures must be negated in order to help stabilize the Middle East.

Fourth, claims by Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei and president Ahmadinejad of not developing nuclear weapons need to be discounted as taqiyya -- a Persian term for deception. The ayatollahs' regime is likely to exercise nuclearization as a means of drumming up support within Iran. Their leaders are prone, as well, to come away from current events more convinced that nuclear weapons can coerce the West. Attacking Iran's nuclear facilities is futile for the regime there has the knowledge and resources to rebuild. An assault also will provoke ultranationalist and anti-western sentiments that would undercut building bridges to Iran's people. Directly targeting Iran's leaders and their nuclear program through more forceful, well-enforced, sanctions have better probabilities of success.

Ultimately it is Iran's people who count, not their current regime. Relations with Iran's government cannot be grounded on expectations of its cooperation in nuclear nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, and Middle East peace at the expense of the Iranian people's liberty. Such a compromise will come back to haunt everyone once Iranians expunge the theocracy -- as happened thirty years ago after the United States and its allies sustained engagement with the last Shah when his regime became repressive. Only an Iranian government truly representative of its people's political aspirations, attuned to its citizens' socioeconomic needs, and open to the marketplaces of knowledge and technology will work with the West toward compromise and coexistence. These seemingly obvious issues have tripped up U.S. and other western administrations many a time.