08/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How 30 Years of U.S. Mistakes Saved Ahmadinejad in Iran

It's one of those tragic ironies that is usually reserved for the theater.

Newly "re-elected" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad owes his job, and perhaps his life, to the United States.

Yes, right about now, he should be putting the finishing touches on those thank you notes to Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. "Thanks, Great Satan -- keep up the good work and don't change a thing. Yours truly, M.A."

Ultimately, Ahmadinejad remains in power because at the pivotal moment, his security forces followed orders. The Revolutionary Guard and Basij militiamen didn't hesitate: they brutally cracked down on the civilian protesters who were trying to change Iran for the better. When faced with the decision to fire into crowds or pull back their weapons and join the revolutionary movement, they chose to fight to protect the regime. And they did so because of their training: they had been systematically indoctrinated by those in power.

But the reason their indoctrination was so complete and so successful was because, for the last 30 years, the U.S. has unintentionally helped Iran shape the minds of its most violent supporters by increasing the rogue nation's isolation. In a misguided attempt to punish Iran for a range of crimes, including its state sponsorship of terrorism, the U.S. has insisted on comprehensive sanctions and deliberately worked to cut Iran off from the rest of the world. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, President George W. Bush publicly promoted this strategy: "My intent is to continue to rally the world, to send a focused signal to the Iranian government that we will continue to work to isolate you."

Unfortunately, this flawed policy has neither prompted regime change nor thwarted the nation's nuclear ambitions. And as we now see, it has had very serious unintended consequences.

For one thing, the sanctions and isolation have helped the oppressive regime to indoctrinate its security forces by keeping them away from external influences. It has been much harder for international values to penetrate Iran and influence the most critical element of its population: the young men who carry guns and have protected Ahmadinejad from reformers.

Furthermore, by isolating Iran, the U.S. has allowed it to establish a controlled environment where its propaganda and lies can flourish. By censoring internal critics and taking advantage of their government-controlled media, Iranian leaders have been able to demonize the U.S. and Israel with remarkable success, inspiring ritualized chants of "Death to America" and portraying Iran's adversaries as satanic enemies of God.

The U.S. strategy of forced isolation has also provided Iran with the space it has needed to establish a hypermasculine warrior ideal. By glorifying legendary warriors of the past, their defiance of infidel oppressors, and their willingness to die for their cause, Iranian leaders have indoctrinated countless young men with the belief that they must achieve honor through battle.

And finally, by keeping Iran isolated, the U.S. has allowed the radical government to redefine morality for its guardsmen and militiamen on its own distorted terms. For Iran's indoctrinated security forces, violence has become a necessary evil. Killing has become a religious duty. And the refusal to follow orders -- even the order to attack civilians -- has become an unimaginable act of betrayal.

Overall, the recent election protests in Iran are a very good sign -- they serve as renewed evidence that many Iranians want change, and that they are just as fed up with the violent regime and its constant war-mongering rhetoric as the rest of us.

However, as President Barack Obama develops his own foreign policy response to Iran, he should not assume that regime change in Iran is inevitable. Despite assumptions to the contrary, similar protests and a similar crackdown in 1989 at Tiananmen Square in China yielded almost no political progress. It is critical that the president treads carefully and does not repeat the mistakes of the past. Punishing Iran for its crackdown on protesters by further isolating the nation will only add to the problem and reduce the chances for a popular revolution in the foreseeable future.

Even though the current Iranian regime may lack legitimacy, Obama needs to find a politically feasible way to engage it in negotiations and decrease the country's isolation. This is an important first step to countering Iran's use of systematic indoctrination, and in turn, to undercutting the militia support which keeps its corrupt leaders in office. Rebuilding connections between the Iranian people and the rest of the world would increase the Revolutionary Guard and Basij members' knowledge of what they're missing, show them some alternative options to violence, and help them give up the fanatical commitments that have been keeping them from pulling back their weapons and joining the popular movement for reform.