02/22/2008 11:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Meeting with Ahmadinejad

Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton participated in a substantive debate in Texas last night. They answered a range of questions from policy to politics, and both candidates did a fine job of answering the questions to the best of their abilities. One of the most contentious issues throughout this campaign that was expectedly brought up again last night was the idea of meeting with -- among other hostile leaders -- President Ahmadinejad of Iran. As someone who was born in Tehran and lived there for nearly 17 years, I'd like to weigh in on the issue right now.

The idea of a presidential meeting with Ahmadinejad was first raised in this campaign during the YouTube debate a few months back when a questioner asked if the next president would be willing to meet "without preconditions" with the leaders of Iran and a number of other perceived hostile leaders. Senator Obama answered yes, and I think that was the right answer. But I think there are a number of observations that we must make before explaining why a presidential meeting could be the right thing to do.

First, one has to make an important distinction between precondition -- the term that the questioner used -- and preparation. Preparations are the steps that need to be taken prior to a presidential meeting. These steps include setting the agenda, mutual communication about the desired topics for discussion and planning on the location for a meeting as the appropriate venue for breaking the three-decade long silence. Preconditions, however, mean something very different. The term has a policy implication and can be most appropriately interpreted within context to mean the implementation or execution of a substantive policy as a condition for the meeting to take place. For instance, President Bush has for years imposed such a precondition by demanding that Iran stop exercising its legal right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of enriching uranium if she wishes to speak to the American president.

When answering "no" at the original YouTube debate, Senator Clinton explained her position by saying that she didn't want to be used for propaganda purposes. But the question wasn't about preparation; the question was about policy precondition. Although she has demonstrated throughout the ensuing debates that she wants preparations and preconditions before meeting with Ahmadinejad.

But the distinction between preparations and preconditions brings me to the second point, which is that setting a precondition cannot be considered "diplomacy" or "negotiations" by any stretch of the terms' definitions. If one side is to tell the other side to agree to a position before having a chance to discuss the issue first, that is no negotiation at all. This would be equivalent to a judge demanding that a defendant pleads guilty to a charge in order to obtain the right to a trial. If the United States wants to maximize its influence around the world, it has to have the courage to talk to its enemies and argue for its desired outcome rather than demanding it without hearing the other side of it. That isn't fair. We have had a president who isn't willing to listen for the past eight years, and that policy has expectedly not worked. We have to learn our lesson from these years and begin listening to the world if we want to be listened to.

But the third point I want to make has to do with something that Senator Clinton said last night. When speaking about possible presidential talks with Cuba, Senator Clinton said that she would not meet with Cuba unless she sees certain changes, including the release of political prisoners and more democracy on the island. There are several aspects of such a policy that is fundamentally misguided.

One has to do with what her answer implies with respect to the way she views the position of presidency. She does not believe that a presidential meeting should serve the purpose of advancing American interests of democracy and human rights abroad. She rather seems to have an elitist view toward the position of the president, viewing a meeting with the United States as a reward, which would be granted to anyone who abides by the preconditions we set forth. This view, in turn, seems to be rooted in an underlying belief that the United States is above other countries. This is clearly an arrogant way of looking at the world and is certainly far from how leaders like Ahmadinejad view the office of a U.S. president. In light of President Bush's eight years of bullying and go-it-alone policies, the next president of the United States will have to understand that he or she has to not only speak with the leaders that we have so far refused to speak to, but we have to go farther than we would normally go in order to obtain the what little good will we had that has been lost and repair the damage that has been done to our image.

But the second and more important implication of Obama and Clinton's different positions on meeting with hostile foreign leaders has to do with the potentials that each candidate believes the office of the president has. Clinton seems to believe that the next president should use what, she seems to believe, is some inherent superior position to try to get other countries to comply with our demands just to earn the reward of normalizing relations with America. She believes Iran will democratize, end three decades of theocratic rule and release all prisoners just so Mahmoud can have a coffee with her majesty. Obama, however, seems to understand that the president has the potential to use the office in a more proactive way. By sitting down with Ahmadinejad to discuss the items on the agenda -- which no doubt have to include issues of human rights, women's rights, gay rights, religious minority rights, political prisoners and lack of democracy in general, along with possible economic and diplomatic incentives in the long-run -- we have a much better chance of succeeding.

Here in the United States, I meet too many Iranian republicans or centrist democrats. The main reason for their beliefs has to do with their experience. Most of them left Iran shortly after the Iranian revolution that ended the last shah's rule and before Iran's war with Iraq began. As a result, they understandably have a very hostile view toward the Iranian regime. But due to decades of being away from Iran, they are also significantly out of touch with the people's sentiments in Iran. That, combined with the fact that they know about oppression in Iran and feel homesick and powerless, leads them to be very sympathetic toward having a very hard-line and even military approach toward Iran. Following the California primary, there was a lot of talk of "Asian" votes going to Hillary, followed by Asian-American bloggers who offered their own theories to explain these statistics. But I think what no one seems to have acknowledged is that the Iranian population in California is the largest outside of Iran with an estimated 500,000 in the south of the state alone. It is this blogger's view that Iranians in California were the biggest single factor that gave the state to Hillary Clinton, whom they thought would be more likely to pursue a hard-line approach toward Iran.

But I and tens of millions who live in Iran have had a very different life experience. I lived through the war and still remember running to the basement with my parents every time sirens went off in warning of air strikes on Tehran. I certainly agree with most Iranian dissidents about the level of oppression in Iran. I lived under that oppression for most of my life and can still remember vividly the night when I was arrested by the religious police because of the crime of speaking with a girl I wasn't married to. But what I also understand is that the United States cannot bring democracy to Iran by either demanding it or militarily imposing it. The fact is that democracy is not an isolated incident like a chemical reaction, which could be brought about instantly by creating some sort of contained explosion. It is rather a step in a long-term evolutionary social process that is moved forth through education and national experience. To give a cheesy metaphor, it's kind of like love; you can't hurry it.

A presidential meeting between Iran and the United States (or lack thereof) would not make much of a difference in resulting in a lasting democracy in Iran in the long-run as neither will military action. But what a direct meeting can mean is that it can be an opportunity for us to acknowledge the crimes that the Iranian regime continues to commit in a public forum without the fear of anyone getting arrested or silenced and offer certain incentives that can push the regime to open up the system, loosen up restrictions on women and the youth and limit the role of the Guardian Council in deciding who can or can't run for public office.

But there is another effect that establishing limited relations with Iran without completely legitimizing the illegitimate power that Ahmadinejad and the unelected mullahs hold can have. Throughout my life in Iran, I always felt a sense of isolation from the rest of the world and believed that children of my generation felt the same way. I craved to know what it was like to live in freedom and always harbored a sense of desire in seeing Iran to have relations with the United States because I saw that as a clear source of inspiration for democracy activists in Iran. I have lived in the United States since 1999, but I never forget that sense of isolation that I felt throughout most of my teen years and know that that desire exists in the hearts of millions of Iranians who love freedom and want Iran to be a friend of the United States. It is time we elect a president who has had the courage to offer a fundamentally different approach in dealing with Iran because he has had the foresight and judgment to understand its long-term positive impact for the people of Iran and the United States.