The recent feud between Senators Clinton and Obama on the question of whether they would meet with President Ahmadinejad captured my attention because I was in Tehran in the run-up to the 2005 election that placed Ahmadinejad in power. But the reason for my trip was not about Iran's nuclear program or how big of a threat Iran is to stability in Iraq, but to conduct research on what has been getting little attention from policy-makers in America: The pro-western and secular democracy movement in Iran.
While most people in the media and politics focused on the supposed difference between Obama's and Clinton's answers, the question highlighted a much more important fact about the nature of the debate on policy toward Iran; that is the fact that none of the candidates from either party are acknowledging the very vibrant and strong democratic movement that has been shaping within Iran, which has turned that country as ready to be exploded as a room full of gas, ready to be ignited into a popular revolution similar to the orange revolution in Ukraine.
One of the main reasons why American policy toward Iran has been a failure is because of the current president's lack of adequate understanding of the reformist movement within Iran. Republicans don't like to tell you this, but shortly after the attacks on 9/11, young people in Tehran held candle vigils and the then-President Khatami of Iran issued a statement that read: "On behalf of the Iranian people ... I denounce the terrorist measures, which led to the killing of defenseless people [on September 11th], and I express my deep sorrow and sympathy with the American people." This is how Bush responded a few months later: "States like [Iran] and their terrorist allies, contribute to an axis of evil..."
Such response to compassion from Khatami, who took a significant risk of having to suffer retribution by the anti-American Supreme leader in Iran when he issued that statement, created a false sense of patriotism around the government of Iran that cut the legs from under the reformers and saved the hardliners in Tehran. To this day, one of the main reasons why the Iranian nuclear program continues to have the support of such a large group of Iranians is that once again, the people in that country feel that they are being bullied by Bush. How would you -- as an American -- feel if a foreign leader calls your country "axis of evil" and then dictates to your country what technologies it should or should not pursue and for what purposes. Wouldn't that push you to rally in support of your government regardless of who the president is? Isn't that how 9/11 brought us together? Calling Iran "axis of evil" did to Iran what 9/11 did to America : it forced people to put their own self-interest aside for the time being and rally around their government for the sake of national unity and pride.
But Bush is not the only one who does not seem to calculate how his policy would impact the growing Persian democratic movement. The current candidates similarly answer questions about policy toward Iran without drawing the distinction between the pro-American people of Iran and the anti-American government - and that is an extremely important distinction. What Obama's and Clinton's answers had is common was that they too both failed to explain how they expect their policies to impact the growth of the reformist and pro-western movement within Iran. They have so far not even acknowledged that the movement exists!
Our candidates are providing us with incomprehensive choices on Iran because they fail to acknowledge that the United States has to pursue a double-policy toward Iran. One policy has to focus on the government, maintaining a certain level of diplomatic contact for strategic purposes. The government in Tehran is weak and has been very weak for about a decade now. While the axis-of-evil years following 9/11 provided a break for it, it is becoming increasingly unpopular again, mostly because of tough economic conditions, which have stemmed from self-imposed limits on trade, rationing of gas, UNSC sanctions and unemployment. While the next president of the United States must maintain a certain level of dialogue with the government of Iran, it should publicly, vigorously and constantly make that necessary distinction between the people of Iran - who are suffering the most under the current dictatorship - and the Iranian government, and do what it can to support the movement as it gains strength.
What none of the candidates have so far acknowledged is that it is only with such precise double-policy toward Iran, they can help bring democracy to the middle-east without having to sacrifice one American or Persian life. Any policy that does not have the clear distinction between the pro-western and secular-minded young Iranian population and the anti-U.S. and religiously fanatical government of Iran built in the core of it will fail miserably.