Iranians should engage one another before the West engages Iran

To engage or attack? This is the question gripping pundits on US-Iranian relations as the United Nations deadline for Iran's compliance on its nuclear program has come and gone and the United States participated in talks with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, about Iraq's future.

The hawks dismiss the existence of a real internal Iranian resistance and lament that a war between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran has become inevitable. Like the hawks, the engagers reject the Iranian resistance as hopeless, but they propose that a policy of unconditional dialogue and sanctions relief will somehow empower Iranian society.

The assessments of both engagers and hawks are unsupported. There is potential for promoting dialogue between the regime's supporters and its opponents, and this step should be taken before any further talk of military action or unconditional US-Iranian engagement.

It is true that since the 1979 revolution, authoritarian state control has prevented power blocs among women, students, labor unions, ethnic and religious minorities, intellectuals, and professionals from coalescing into an alternative political force. However, neither engagers nor hawks properly take into account these power blocs' organized resistance activities despite repression by the regime. They also underestimate the impact that the international community can have by cooperating with these blocs in the peaceful advancement of pluralism and liberalism in Iran.

The Iranian regime today rests on two competing groupings, united in purpose but distinct in strategy: a "militaristic fundamentalist" camp, represented by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a "status quo reformist militaristic" alliance headed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Both camps are committed to the Constitution, which legitimizes control in the hands of the few and upholds Iran's mission to export the Islamic revolution by all means necessary. The maneuverings of both camps are centered on political control rather than genuine policy deliberations.

Largely enfeebled in the past few years, the Rafsanjani camp began a comeback after forming an alliance with anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives, leading to success in the December 2006 elections of city councils and the Assembly of Experts. Among other things, the alliance blames Mr. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric in denying the Holocaust and pursuing Iran's nuclear objectives for the recent sanctions and the regime's isolation at home and abroad. It reckons that Western support is more important than that of Russia and China.

During former President Mohammad Khatami's trip to the United States and Europe at the end of 2006, it was intimated that should the West agree to support the reformist alliance and provide the Islamic Republic with security guarantees, this camp would strive to reduce the tempo and manner of support for anti-Western militant groups in the greater Middle East, assist in bringing about greater security in Iraq, and provide Muslim legitimacy to Western governments in their battle against radical Islamists.

The fundamentalists admonish their opponents for radiating undue fear and urgency among ordinary Iranians. Their views echo those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that "one should not underestimate the strength of the enemy or the might of the Iranian nation."

Neither engagers nor hawks offer a plausible strategy regarding Iran. An attack on Iran probably would lead to devastating loss of life and environmental damage, retaliatory terror operations against pro-Western Middle East states and even Europe, and isolation of the US internationally.

But promoting unconditional dialogue and sanctions relief will neither empower the society nor liberalize Iran. The problem of Iran is not one of personalities, but rather of a system without transparency, accountability, responsibility, and acceptance of the universality of human rights.

Empowering Iranians first requires separating Iranian nationalism from the regime's revolutionary fundamentalism. This can initially be achieved by promoting and facilitating engagement among Iranian intellectuals and professionals – between those within the system and those opposing it.

We would suggest organizing a series of conferences addressing the direction of the country within the context of "Iranian national interest" in a number of areas, such as foreign policy, human rights, economy, energy, environment, transportation, and legal frameworks. These conferences would give credibility to those expert voices and views that have not been heard outside Iranian intellectual circles.

It is too bad that these meetings cannot take place in Iran. The international community should help facilitate their organization outside Iran and pressure and coax the regime in Tehran, especially the Rafsanjani camp, to allow those inside Iran to participate in these events without fear of repercussions for them or their families. Iranians should be allowed to engage with fellow Iranians before the West engages with the regime in Iran.

Nazenin Ansari is the London-based diplomatic editor for the newspaper Kayhan. Jonathan Paris is a London-based fellow at the Hudson Institute. ©2007 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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