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We Still Must Engage Iran

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In response to the news from the streets of Tehran, American conservatives took to the airwaves, calling for aggressive and direct American support for the demonstrators. Americans are justifiably sympathetic to the Iranian demonstrators but an over the top response from the Obama administration, would only make the situation worse, as it would serve to further the regime's line that these demonstrations are illegitimate-American backed efforts to interfere in Iran. This is why Iranian human rights groups have asked the U.S. to "keep its distance."


Yet Bill Kristol, in comments echoed by other conservatives, said on Fox News Sunday, "I do want to send money. And I want to tell the Iranians who are on the fence and who do want trade with Europe and do want warmer relations with the U.S., 'Look, you've got now to back off or else you don't get anything you want.'" This is the wrong approach and the Obama administration must not give Ahmedinejad the chance to claim that his fight is with Washington, and not with his own citizens. Additionally, there are not many levers available to the United States - and those conservatives advocating direct military action or indirect covert action have seemingly not learned that exporting democracy through the barrel of a gun is a disastrous approach. Instead, the Obama administration should continue to pursue a responsible course that refrains from legitimizing the results, expresses support for the human rights of Iran's opposition, as well as ensures that the U.S. is not strengthening the regime by being seen as directly meddling.


While many have claimed that the crack downs in Iran mean that Obama should abandon his engagement policy, the fact is that engaging Iran is probably more threatening to the Iranian regime then efforts to isolate it. Isolating authoritarian regimes - such as with North Korea, Cuba, or Zimbabwe - often does little to moderate their behaviors or promote human rights or greater openness. Past U.S. policy of isolating and threatening Iran completely failed in both weakening Iran and stopping its nuclear program - and only served to strengthen hardliners.


Going forward, the Obama administration must continue its policy of attempting to engage Iran and its people. As is clearly apparent, the regime feels highly threatened by the prospect of greater openness and engagement with the west. Offering the prospect for greater interaction - far from supporting the regime as conservative critics suggest -would only strengthen those in Iran calling for dialogue. And - if greater interaction were to occur - it would likely only serve to weaken the grip of conservative hardliners.


If Ahmadinejad and fellow hardliners maintain their hold on power, the prospects for a successful U.S. engagement that results in a rapprochement with Iran may be lessened. However, contrary to cries from conservatives, it should not be the United States that turns its back on engagement with Iran. Let them turn their backs on us.