No one said diplomacy with Iran would be easy. And now, before it even started, the Iranian election crisis has left Tehran politically paralyzed and Washington without a clear diplomatic path ahead. Iranian centrifuges keep spinning, leading some to think that September should be the deadline for Iran to accept the U.S. offer of talks. Although diplomacy must remain the policy, the momentous upheaval in Iran has completely changed the political landscape. Opening talks with Iran's current government at this decisive moment could backfire severely. Indeed, now is the time for a tactical pause with Iran.
U.S. President Barack Obama has stated that the United States is in a wait-and-see mode until Iran's post-election crisis comes to a conclusion. Clearly, that has not happened yet. The Iranian opposition is alive and kicking. Two weeks ago, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani cast doubt on the election results during the Tehran Friday prayers, an important venue for political speeches. A day later, former President Mohammad Khatami upped the ante and called for a referendum on the elections and the government. And presidential hopeful Mir Hossein Mousavi continues to defy Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accusing him of insulting the Iranian nation by claiming that the protesters are acting on behalf of foreigners. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the official election winner, is entangled in a battle with conservatives over his cabinet picks.
The opposition's resilience has clearly taken Ahmadinejad and Khamenei by surprise. At a minimum, the opposition has deprived Ahmadinejad of any sense of normalcy, forcing him to devote several hours a day to address the election dispute instead of advancing his own political agenda. Khamenei is increasingly resorting to warnings and threats rather than calls for unity and reconciliation. "The elite should be watchful, since they have been faced with a big test. Failing the test will cause their collapse," Khamenei said last Monday in a speech that many perceived as verging on desperation. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad now seem to be off balance.
The dispute between the Ahmadinejad government and the opposition is about far more than a disputed election. It goes to the core question of whether there is a peaceful path toward changing Iran's political system from within. For a population that is highly critical of the government, but values stability, the existence of such a path has been important. It enabled Iranians to push for gradual, controllable change without risking another revolution that could end up like the previous one, when one unpopular, repressive political system was replaced with another.
If Ahmadinejad succeeds in silencing his internal critics and opponents, many will conclude that this path has been closed. Iran cannot be changed through the ballot box if people's votes won't be honored. The likely result will be a radicalized population whose opposition to the government will be met with increased repression at home and more adventurism abroad.
The Obama administration should avoid repeating the key mistake of the Bush administration, for which Iran was solely viewed through the prism of its nuclear program. Delaying nuclear talks a few months won't make a dramatic difference to Iran's nuclear program. It could, however, determine which Iran America and the region will be dealing with for the next few decades -- one in which democratic elements strengthen over time, or one where the will of the people grows increasingly irrelevant to Iran's decision-makers.
Moreover, even nuclear talks would have a negligible impact on the election dispute, Iran currently is not in a position to negotiate. Some in Washington believe that the paralysis in Tehran has weakened Iran and made it more prone to compromise. But rather than delivering more, Iran's government currently couldn't deliver anything at all. The infighting has simply incapacitated Iranian decision makers.
Iran's lack of capacity creates a tremendous danger for the White House. Of all scenarios the Obama administration could end up facing -- an Iran that refuses to come to the table, for example, or an Iran that only uses talks to play for time -- the worst scenario is another one: where the parties begin talks according to the set timetable, but fail to reach an agreement due to an inability to deliver. If talks fail, U.S. policymakers will be left with increasingly unpalatable options as a result.
Obama should not be married to any artificial deadlines. Pushing for talks now simply because he decided on a timetable before the elections could undermine the chances for diplomacy to succeed. Paradoxically, the best way to enhance prospects for diplomacy might actually be not to pursue diplomacy for now. Better instead to make a tactical pause, see how things develop, and be ready to engage at the right time.