Why Not to Engage Iran (Yet)

Barack Obama is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s only hope.

Times are tough for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With presidential elections six months away, he finds himself under attack from all sides. Sixty Iranian economists wrote a letter recently protesting his failed policies that have led to record-high unemployment. Self-described reformers such as presidential hopeful Mehdi Karoubi lambast him for elevating Iran to first place on Israel's hit list, and even supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his most important supporter, wavers at times.

Clearly the Iranian president needs some help, but who, among his friends, could boost his popularity? Hugo Chvez? Hassan Nasrallah? Moqtada al-Sadr? Dont bet on it. He needs much more than accolades from Iran's allies and snapshots of friendly handshakes during their state visits to Tehran.

Ahmadinejad is far more likely to get an assist from Barack Obama -- or rather, all the advisors on the U.S. president-elects foreign-policy team who keep talking about the need for the United States to talk to Iran. No one should be surprised that Ahmadinejad sent a personal letter to Obama right after the election congratulating him on his victory, becoming the first Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to extend such a gesture. Most Iranians badly want to end their isolation from the United States and the world at large. No doubt, whoever can claim credit for an end to 30 years of hostility with the United States will be the country's hero. The risk of bolstering Ahmadinejad's legitimacy is far more serious than the president-elect and his advisors seem to realize.

Obama's willingness to hold unconditional talks with hostile regimes, including Iran, came to define his foreign-policy platform on the campaign trail. Although Obama seemed to back away from this position shortly after the election, saying that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, signals from his inner circle reaffirm the president-elects earlier statements. Even Dennis Ross -- Middle East envoy during the Clinton administration, a leading advocate for Israel, and now a key advisor to Obama -- says the United States should talk to Iran through low-level channels at first in order to pave the way for a dialogue at a higher level. Several Iran experts at centrist think tanks are urging Obama to go even further and offer direct official engagement with the Iranian government as well as other incentives in an attempt to halt the country's nuclear enrichment program that would allow it to produce a nuclear bomb.

Under Iranian law, all candidates for the parliament and the presidency must be approved by the Guardian Council, a panel dominated by conservative clerics appointed by the supreme leader. At this point, it is unclear if Khamenei will give the nod to permit the controversial Ahmadinejad to run for a second term. But if U.S.-Iran relations improve between now and the Iranian presidential election, credit is likely to fall to Ahmadinejad and his hard-line tactics, boosting his chances significantly in June. Reconciliation with Washington would vindicate Ahmadinejad, whose stinging rhetoric against the United States and Israel has caused his critics to accuse him of making Iran more of a pariah and to demand that he be denied the chance to run for reelection.

This is precisely why some interesting jockeying for power has been unfolding inside the Islamic Republic since Obama was elected. Many factions, even those whose rhetoric suggests the opposite, see the benefits that would come from improved relations with the United States and want to be in a position to bring them about.

Yet Iranian political elites seemed unsure of how to react to Ahmadinejad's letter to Obama. The ultraconservative newspaper Resalat followed the president's lead with an editorial offering advice to Obama on how to repair the relationship. Meanwhile, the right-wing daily newspaper Jomhouri Islami countered that, if any opening from Iran were to be extended to the United States, it should come from Khamenei, the supreme leader, and not from Ahmadinejad, an elected official. Other potential presidential rivals to Ahmadinejad, such as the parliamentarian Ali Larijani, have been more subtle in downplaying the importance of the letter. Larijani viewed Obama's response to the letter as noncommittal, according to the New York Times, and said the United States was not moving in the right direction as far as Iran was concerned.

This behavior reflects a pattern in Iran, a country obsessed with its relationship with the United States. Each time an end to Iran's estrangement with the United States appears to be in sight, various competing political factions try to ensure that it happens on their watch. Back in March 2000, when Mohammad Khatami was president, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came close to apologizing to Iran for the United States involvement in Irans 1953 CIA-backed coup. "[I]t is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs," Albright said.

Instead of celebrating the historic gesture, Khatami's rivals condemned the United States for not going far enough in extending a direct apology. I was living in Iran at that time and was able to witness up close the great fear among conservatives that Khatami and his reform movement would gain all the praise and harvest all the political capital for an improvement in relations with the United States. Thanks to these conservatives and the United States second thoughts, this never happened and Iranians hopes were dashed once again.

In many ways, Iran's leaders view Obama's election as similar to 2000, when bilateral relations seem poised for a breakthrough. But considering the United States weakness in the Middle East and Irans strengthened position in the region, Iranians are more optimistic that this time the United States is more motivated to initiate a thaw. If the Obama administration does intend to talk to Iran, however, it might be wise to wait until after the Iranian election in June. Otherwise, all the talk over the coming years is likely to be with Ahmadinejad.



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