When officials from the Obama administration, along with other members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, sit down with their Iranian counterparts to discuss Iran's nuclear program, the mood in the room may get a little uncomfortable. Iran has been busted setting up a second uranium enrichment plant in clear violation of its international obligations, and its diplomats, such as nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (left), have a tendency to lash out when cornered.
Astonishingly, however, writing in the New York Times this week, former National Security Council staffers Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett suggest that Iran is the victim here. They accuse even the pro-engagement Obama of failing to reach out sufficiently to Tehran, and urge Washington to "seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China." Put bluntly, this is a delusion.
One problem with the Leveretts' analysis is that Iran has a vibrant opposition with its own views on U.S. engagement efforts. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi vigorously argues that the international community should refuse to deal with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since he stole the June presidential election. Noted dissident Akbar Ganji, in a petition signed by such notables as Noam Chomsky and Jurgen Habermas, argued that when Ahmadinejad visited the United Nations he should have been arrested for crimes against humanity.
For the United States to align itself with such a government would be to kick the opposition in the teeth. The Islamic Republic has shown that it is neither Islamic nor a republic -- in the elegant phrasing of Iran's respected "dissident ayatollah," Ali Montazeri. And now it is running scared. The regime is afraid to kill protesters, since doing so only inflames the opposition. At the September 19 Quds Day protests, it did not even arrest them, aware of how socially explosive the accusations of retaliatory prison rape have been. In contrast, protesters were bold enough to stand next to Ahmadinejad and shout "resign, resign" when he was interviewed on state television. When a repressive regime is too afraid to kill or silence those brave enough to stand up to it, it does not bode well for that regime.
Rather than do as the Leveretts suggest and embrace Ahmadinejad, the United States must align itself with the rising alternative to the president and his thugs. Jimmy Carter once toasted the shah for running "an island of stability" a year before his overthrow. Barack Obama should not make the same mistake of presuming the ruling power will remain in control.
Certainly, the Iranian people want a strategic alignment with the United States. But is that possible under the Islamic Republic as is? Two governments with profound differences, such as the United States and Iran, can cooperate closely if they both face a common greater enemy. A common threat in Germany brought Britain and the Soviet Union together during World War II. Similarly, the Soviet threat spurred a U.S.-China strategic realignment during the Cold War -- which the Leveretts hold up as a model for U.S.-Iran relations. That same Soviet threat was the basis for the U.S. offer for a strategic realignment with Iran, made by President Ronald Reagan in sending national-security advisor Robert McFarlane to Tehran an oft-forgotten part of the Iran-contra affair.