This week, after 30 years of low-profile, back-door meetings, the United States government is openly meeting with the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A relationship that never ended is publicly renewing its vows to much fanfare, but the main topic at hand, and the circumstances surrounding this new willingness to publicly "engage," are set to lead the Obama administration down the same path as his predecessor, a path at which the awkward Obama-Sarkozy-Brown media spectacle in Pittsburgh hinted: futile threats that hurt the Iranian people far more than the Iranian government.
But perhaps there's the rub.
By meeting at this time, and with a government whose electoral legitimacy is doubted by significant numbers of its own electorate, the Obama administration and its allies are indicating that they will look the other way at the dire circumstances of the Iranian people because Iran's strategic importance and regional influence are sorely needed.
It's not Obama's fault that Iraq and Afghanistan happened, but it will be his fault if he rushes into a threat-laden, pseudo-engagement with Iran at this historical crossroads in US-Iran relations.
This summer's significant events in Iran -- rife with authorized gang rapes of young street demonstrators, imprisonments and killings of suspected dissidents and threats to their families -- have undoubtedly impacted the Obama administration's plans for engagement with Iran. To overlook this and instead maintain the pre-Iran-election engagement time line is not prudent, and worse, it is dangerous.
The now weakened and openly factionalized Iranian government, courtesy of the blood and tears of millions of Iranian people, was a gift to America's Iran policy. Balancing on one leg, the Iranian government was wavering on a significantly reduced footing of regional and international legitimacy and support. Recall that even many of Ahmadinejad's allies were hesitant to congratulate him on the election. The Iranian government's biggest and most threatening opponent was no longer the US government, but the Iranian people.
Instead of grasping this opportunity to stand by the Iranian people and to position itself as a wiser, more legitimate, and less threatening regional authority, the Obama administration has stepped in to reinvigorate the Iranian government's most appealing scenario: that of the formidable opponent of modern-day Western imperialism. And not just any imperialism, but one which targets some countries' nuclear programs while ignoring other countries' nuclear bombs.
Ahmadinejad is back to square one, and it has emboldened him, to the dismay of so many Iranians who poured into the streets this summer.
This week's meeting, overshadowed by threats of "crippling" sanctions and Iranian isolation, will be Obama's gift to a government that -- despite all appearances -- is desperately in need of a power boost of exactly the nature that George W. Bush handed it for 8 years: antagonism, isolation, and America's behind-the-scenes pleas to negotiate Iran's help with its pesky neighbors.
Obama should have adjusted his timetable, and re-evaluated the current situation in Iran.
Economic sanctions and war will continue to hurt the Iranian people, not its government, instead perpetuating a waning government whose bid for existence has a shaky moral compass. Further, these threats will not configure into any enduring solutions to regional problems.
An undisputed and law-abiding Iranian government can, as it once was, be a helpful ally to the United States in the region. Iran's current problems, thus, lie more in the fact that it has little regard for international law, than in its nuclear ambitions.
The best and most effective answer to the Iran problem -- as it has always been -- is wise diplomatic pressure that doesn't isolate Iran and its nuclear program, focusing more on the international laws and guidelines that Iran is not following, rather the nuclear ones that it is. This type of substantial and beneficial engagement non-threateningly respects Iranian sovereignty, while also requiring the Iranian government to meet its obligations to international law, including in areas that apply to the inherent rights of its people, if it intends on being a participant rather than an outcast in world affairs.
De-roguing Iran is possible without sanctions and war and impossible without openly addressing Iran's failure to behave like a legitimate and law-abiding member of the international community.
Today's Obama has the moral authority to do this -- certainly moreso that his predecessor ever did.
Obama must now pause, reflect and take advantage of this summer's events to not only make way toward actual regional solutions, but to resolve one of his biggest problems: a fanatic Iranian government whose answer to Western imperialism is ideological expansion.