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The right way to talk to Iran

The first step is for Obama to reach out to Iranian Americans.

By Joshua Gross / March 9, 2009

Somerville, Mass.

It has been a busy month for US-Iran relations.

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Iran recently launched its first satellite into orbit in what The New York Times called, "a shot across the bow of American diplomacy," and US President Barack Obama passed along a secret letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in an attempt to enlist the Russians in an international effort to contain Iran's nuclear program, all while Iranians prepare to head to the polls in June.

While numerous campaign contenders debate the success of President Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and policies, thousands of nuclear centrifuges continue to spin.

Mr. Obama was quick to insist that the US will pursue "constructive dialogue" with Tehran, while Ahmadinejad alluded to opening talks in an "atmosphere of mutual respect." These are promising first steps to forging new US-Iran relations. However, now is not the time to engage Iran directly. The perception of American meddling during Iran's election season will only play into the hands of hard-liners.

Postponing the offering of a grand bargain until after the elections does not mean that the US is without options in the interim. There are ways to encourage positive relations.

The Iranian regime describes the US as "the global arrogance" more frequently today than the old epithet, "the great Satan." The perception that America does not respect Iran is shared among the simple shopkeepers, courageous reformists, and vitriolic clerics alike. A change of perception among the people is key to any progress in relations.

The locus of power in Iran is Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, who exercises near-complete control over many of the state's levers of power. Talking to the Iranian representatives up to and including the president is in effect simply passing a note to Ayatollah Khamenei. The only difference is the choice of courier.

Enter California. The state is home to a large and influential Iranian diaspora. Although within this community a wide variety of political positions and sympathies are encountered, the Iranian diaspora could play a role in passing on an important message to their former countrymen.

The Iranian calendar offers Obama an ideal opportunity to reach out to them and challenge common misperceptions. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, will be celebrated later this month. Obama should take advantage of this unique moment to travel to California and hold a town-hall meeting with the Iranian diaspora. In the context of a major speech to this community, Obama will be able to address the Iranian people and the Iranian government indirectly, without the political fallout of stalled direct negotiations.