The right way to talk to Iran

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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