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It's Time to Talk to Iran

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In December 1977, between 6 and 9 million Iranians with a wide array of grievances took to the streets of Iran to protest the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The average Iranian had become accustomed to the extravagant spending of the Shah and the fortunate few who made up his inner circle, while the rest of the country struggled to secure basic necessities. By 1979, the Iranian protests became a revolution that dethroned the unpopular American-backed Shah and ended the Pahlavi dynasty. As with many political revolutions, however, the most organized of the opposition took power; in the case of Iran, it was a group of Shiite Muslim clerics allied around a new supreme leader -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Relations between Iran and the United States have never recovered. Minorities and secular groups within Iran who fought for enhanced freedoms became entangled in another repressive regime.

Most Americans believe it was the Revolution that initiated the mutual suspicion between the people of Iran and the United States, but this is simply not true. The U.S. played a significant role in orchestrating the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran's popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. As acknowledged by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000, "it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."

The Mosaddegh coup and years of active support for the former Shah are mere examples of a long history of failed quasi-imperialist policy. The U.S. and her western allies have for decades actively intervened in the internal affairs of foreign governments and worked to form or aid regimes that are sympathetic to our interests and in which we maintain a steady influence. But the consequence, within the very nations whose politics we manipulate, is an atmosphere of mistrust for the U.S. and the leaders whose rule we impose or support. To many Iranians, the U.S. is culpable for subduing the voice of the people within Iran not once but twice -- first through CIA involvement in the 1953 coup and then through restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty, which paralyzed all other political factions and prevented them from organizing to oppose the clerics' bid for power in 1979. These two incidents, along with the USS Vincennes shooting down Iran Air flight 655 in 1988 over the Persian Gulf, which left 290 dead, have given the clerics of Iran plenty of valuable ammunition for propaganda against the United States.

Since the rise of clerical rule in Iran, the U.S. and her allies have tinkered with supporting domestic insurgencies and hostile neighbors of Iran, including Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. This was followed in the 1990s by U.S. and Israeli adoption of Martin Indyk's "Dual Containment" policy against Iran and Iraq. The policy, which called for an increase of American troops in Saudi Arabia and other revered Muslim lands, was an utter failure. It united Iran and Iraq, once sworn enemies, against the United States. The troops it placed in the Arabian Peninsula were one of Osama Bin Laden's stated reasons for the September 11th attacks. The policy was a detriment to peace and led Neoconservatives to push for an escalation in the region that eventually culminated with the invasion of Iraq and a war that is just concluding.

Politicians and clerics in Iran have become emboldened in their steadfast condemnation of the West. It was not always so. In 1997, Mohammed Khatami, by all accounts an Iranian moderate, was stunningly elected president. Mr. Khatami called for a "dialogue among cultures and civilizations," and persuaded his own antagonistic government to participate in diplomatic talks with the United States. As the Swiss ambassador to Iran informed U.S. officials in 2003, Iranian leaders at the highest level -- including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Khatami, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi -- approved a proposal for comprehensive discussions with the United States. But the offer was not pursued.

The United States and her allies are running out of viable options to deal with Iran. Sanctions, even when effective, are a slow process. And the isolation of Iran has only sent the regime courting strange bed fellows, including Venezuela. We cannot allow our hubris to lead us into another war in the Middle East. If Nixon could open talks with China, and Reagan with the Soviets, then why not Obama with Iran? Is it that he will not or that he cannot? And if not, why? We know the GOP will attack the president if he extends an olive branch to Iran; but they will attack him regardless, so he may as well do something of significance for the greater good of our entire civilization. Last week we commemorated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, let us remember his memorable words:

"Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies -- or else? The chain reaction of evil -- hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars -- must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation."

It is time for this president to show us he has an ability to make tough decisions and be the ambassador of peace we have all expected him to be, and which he promised to be.