Should Obama talk to Ahmadinejad?
Western dialogue with Tehran won't reward a repressive regime. It will offer Iranians hope.
The quelling of dramatic public protests in Iran may cause some to despair over the prospects for achieving real social and political change there. But even with another term in office, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the revolutionary regime itself have been permanently altered by June's uprising.Skip to next paragraph
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The emergence of a mass protest movement, reminiscent of the 1979 revolution that brought down the shah, is a signal that Iran will never be the same again. That is why robust engagement with Tehran, as President Obama has promised to pursue, remains essential not only in transforming Western-Iranian relations, but also in transforming Iran itself.
Some observers argue that the price of Mr. Obama's recent overtures toward Iran has been an Ahmedinejad victory, and that any form of engagement with an Ahmedimejad regime would be tantamount to validating a stolen election, not to mention a slap in the face of a mass movement for democracy in Iran.
These are understandable sentiments. Yet, at the same time, we must not ignore the dramatic opportunities for long-term change in Iran that have emerged as a result of this crisis, opportunities to which the international community must respond through a confident and coherent policy of engagement. The potential for Mir Hossein Mousavi and his fellow reformists to convert people power into political leverage has by no means dissipated. On the contrary, cracks have begun to form at the highest levels of the clerical regime, and even within the Revolutionary Guard, which has been the chief culprit in Iran's brutal crackdown on protesters.
The regime will have a serious stability problem on its hands if:
•The popular demonstrations continue, even at a diminished state, in Tehran and other major cities for a few more weeks.
•Prominent clerical organizations, such as The Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, which last week issued a statement calling the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad illegitimate, keep registering their discontent.
•Prestigious conservatives, like the speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani; former Speaker Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nouri; and former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati (all advisers and close allies to the supreme leader) continue to criticize Ahmadinejad's handling of the election crisis. The implications are clear: Neither Ahmadinejad's grip on power nor his credibility will be as secure as before. Indeed, some of his existing political base has already abandoned him as a result of his divisive impact on Iranian politics.