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The right way to talk to Iran

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

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The Iranian diaspora is passionate about their homeland, and remain in close contact with family and friends. These indirect linkages will pass along Obama's message, along with the vibrant blogging scene that has mostly escaped attempts at government control.

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Obama's speech should dispel popular myths about Iran and focus on the beauty of Persian culture. Obama might acknowledge a personal fascination with Persian history and express a desire to learn more. He could refer to stories drawn from Iran's ancient past, such as Cyrus the Great's liberation of Jewish slaves from bondage or the nation's modern experiments with constitutionalism and liberal democracy.

Iran has a strong democratic tradition that can be traced back to the struggle of reformers against an absolute monarchy at the turn of the 20th century. Obama should insist that these visions of Iran's tolerant, cosmopolitan, inclusive prerevolutionary past serve as models for the future. Language that evokes the towering pillars of Persepolis and the ancient gardens of Pasargadae will resonate with the young men who wear their hair long in homage to Achaemenian soldiers, or the young women wearing pendants engraved with images of Zoroastrian gods.

Such a speech should avoid specific policy prescriptions, but emphasize the desire for a "new approach." Iran's constructive role in the early stages of Afghanistan's reconstruction should also be acknowledged.

To be sure, the Iranian government may decide that its strategic interests reside in delay and obfuscation to improve their negotiating stance. And the Obama administration must keep a watchful eye on Iran's nuclear program. Nonetheless, a speech that seeks to officially close the chapter on Iran as the axis of evil and appeals to the everyday Iranians can only help America's image there.

Germans found a partner in President Kennedy when they believed they were alone and abandoned. Russians who were desperate to experience the outside world were heartened by President Reagan's passionate insistence that President Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

The day may soon come when Iranians – disillusioned by the failures of their revolution, alienated by our previous president's arrogance and pugilism – find hope in the simple, respectful words spoken by a compassionate US president.

Joshua Gross is a master's candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.