US-Iran relations are at a historical juncture. While the United States is trying to convince or coax the Iranian regime to stop its nuclear enrichment, it might inadvertently trigger it to pull out of the Non Proliferation Treaty. Meanwhile, the Iranian opposition is in a mostly peaceful struggle to convince Tehran's hardliners to loosen their repressive grip on the Iranian society. But the struggle for democracy could trigger the Iranian hardliners to wage a bloody civil war. Such critical junctures require having political credibility and leadership, which are in short supply in Iran. Unfortunately, US policies of the past 30 years have rendered it incapable of influencing the dynamics of US-Iran relations in a positive way.
Under these circumstances, the last best hope remains in President Obama's leadership to build US credibility and thus change the dynamics of US-Iran relations. With that, Obama has the opportunity to eliminate Iran as a potential nuclear threat, which is his short-term interest. More importantly, though, he could help the Iranian people's aspiration to democratize, which would be in the US long-term interest. At the same time, Obama could incorporate Iran as a constructive player in creating a regional security community consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gulf States and Yemen.
Obama's other option is to reduce Iran with all of its complexities into a single problem--an existential, immediate, and undeterrable threat. In following this approach, Obama would have no choice but to use violence, or the threat of it, to sow fear and wage war. In so doing, he would be adopting the Republican language of war and thus waste his political capacity to convince Republicans of being a war President, a futile effort, which would reinforce the failed rationality of the past. Worse yet, Obama would not be able to change the rationality of Tehran's hardliners, whose survival has solely depended on keeping their base in a permanent state war.
The choice is clear. President Obama should lead, rather than follow the failed policies of his predecessors. Instead of pushing a rather narrow nuclear agenda by recommending more coercion, he should broaden his policy to consider the salience of Iran's domestic situation in US-Iran relations.
Because the Iranian state has lacked the capacity to create societal consensus since its inception, it has relied on a narrow but ideologically committed base for its survival. Confrontation with the United States, real or rhetorical, has played a key role in keeping the state's base unified, covering regime's incompetence, and keeping the opposition fragmented. But the June 2009 election was a game changer. Weakened and confused by the relentless resiliency of the democratic movement, popularly known as the "Green Revolution," the state is now stuck in a political quagmire.
On the one hand, if the Iranian state tries to compromise with the opposition, its ideologically committed supporters would rather wage a civil war than democratize. Moreover, any sign of compromise would shake the confidence of millions of the state's economically dependent supports.
On the other hand, if the state tries to use more repression, it would further erode its base and further empower the opposition. After nearly eight months of being stuck in this quagmire, while some hardliners are clearly upset with the ineffective use of violence to crush what they perceived as foreign-backed insurgency, others warn of the danger of further escalation. Meanwhile, the supreme leader sends mixed signals. He threatens the opposition one day and offers some unattainable compromise another day. In short, the regime is stuck in quagmire, and neither compromise nor repression can relieve it.
Under these circumstances, the Obama administration should not inadvertently help the regime by pursuing coercive policies, invoking the language of war, and imposing "debilitating sanctions." Instead, Obama should allow the dynamics of state/society relations to run on its own clock. Meanwhile, sanctions, if any, should only target hardliners' personal range of freedom and credibility rather than imposing broad measures, which would help create more quasi-monopolies for them.
Defending human rights could help, but if, and only if, it is not employed instrumentally. The Iranian people, regardless of their political attitudes, are politically savvy. They realize the irony in hearing the loudest cries of human rights violation coming from those who still defend or promote water-boarding, use of violence, bombing of Iran, the Israeli's bombing of Iran, and punitive sanctions. For Obama to gain credibility, he should not use the language of coercion and that of human rights simultaneously. Neither should he reduce the complexities of US-Iran relations into a simple military issue. Instead of missing past opportunities as his processors did, Obama should take this critical moment to follow a slow, quiet, reflective, and rational foreign policy, which would change the discourse of US-Iran relations for decades.