01/29/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

How to Influence Iran's Foreign Policy Debate

The political atmosphere surrounding Iran's nuclear developments has become palpably more alarmist over the last year, influencing foreign policy pundits to increasingly view diplomatic negotiations as a check-the-box exercise on the purportedly inevitable road to war. This view seems to be largely driven by an intriguingly well-constructed caricature of Iran's political leadership that is hell-bent on genocide.

In reality Iran's position is much more rational than hawkish national security commentators have led the American public to believe.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has, to be sure, provided much rhetorical fodder for the militarists' propaganda mills. Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post has cautioned, however, that Ahmadinejad's often-alleged genocidal intentions are based on an apparent mistranslation of one of his speeches.

It is important to note in any case that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, wields the real power over Iran's foreign policy, not President Ahmadinejad, who will be departing from office after Iran's elections in June, barring unforeseen events.

Iran's official position toward Israel, as articulated by Khamenei, is significantly more moderate and nuanced than what is generally reported.

Kessler quotes Khamenei stating in 2011,

We do not suggest [an invasion of Israel], or throwing immigrant Jews into the sea.... We propose holding a referendum [with the participation of] the Palestinian nation. The Palestinian nation, like any other nation, has the right to determine their own destiny and elect the governing system of the country.

While it is certainly possible that tensions between Israel and Iran could escalate into serious military conflict, Khamenei's stated position on Israel is a far cry from the purportedly un-deter-able nuclear threat Iran is alleged to present to the Jewish state. The myth of the "mad mullahs" is precisely that.

Recommendations to the Obama administration

Khamenei's proposed referendum would, no doubt, be unacceptable to most Israelis given its implications for the future of the Jewish State. The Israeli government's continued expansion of West Bank settlements, however, should be viewed as equally problematic. Indeed, the Obama administration should hold them to account for their human rights violations against the Palestinians, which have stirred up the Islamist hornet's nest against both Israel and the United States as its economic and military benefactor.

Thus far the administration has expressed disapproval of Israeli settlement expansions rhetorically while continuing to acquiesce to unconditional economic aid to Israel, leading Iranian leaders to conclude either Israel is an instrument of American empire in the region or alternatively, that Israel and its American supporters ultimately call the shots on U.S. foreign policy.

The Obama administration should prove otherwise by building support within Congress to make continued economic aid to Israel contingent upon its dismantlement of West Bank settlements, both as an affirmation of American values and out of concern for Israel's future no less than Palestinian rights. This would demonstrate to Iran that U.S. leaders value justice over power and would create political space within Iran over the future of U.S.-Iran relations.

Over the longer term, the administration should also engage diplomatically with Hamas in an effort to sway them toward a more hopeful and realistic vision for the Palestinian people: land for peace, trust-building, trade, tourism, and perhaps even integration over the long-term, once improved economic and social relations make it possible for this to evolve organically. A policy of absolutism, on the other hand, will only play into the hands of Israeli expansionists and lead to the perpetuation of Israeli military and economic subjugation.

Iranian hardliners might be tempted to continue to play spoiler to this vision but with U.S. security guarantees and economic incentives on the table in exchange for nuclear transparency and limitations on enrichment, their more moderate political opponents just might regain the political space they need to make a grand bargain with the United States and perhaps even eventually with Israel.

There is still time for diplomacy to work and the Obama administration should pursue it vigorously and comprehensively in its second term while defending its domestic flank from AIPAC and its formidable network of supporters in Congress and the media. The president has the opportunity to secure a truly great legacy if he makes peace between the United States, Iran, Israel and the Palestinians his top priority in his second term.