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.

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.

Even with four more years of Ahmadinejad, there is a good chance that the regime may feel obliged to offer tactical concessions to the massive "Anyone-but-Ahmadinejad" bloc that rallied to Mr. Mousavi's candidacy. Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader whose legitimacy has been permanently tarnished by the alleged election fraud perpetrated on his watch, may be forced into certain concessions of his own to keep the peace on the streets. This could include a loosening of the vetting process for parliamentary elections, which would allow more reformist candidates to run for office.

On their own, these tweaks will make little difference. However, they may further embolden the elites of the regime who have marshaled against Ahmadinejad, possibly opening the door to dramatic political change over the coming months and years. Demonstrations on the streets of Tehran are a symptom, rather than the cause, of a wider political struggle between different factions of Iran's ruling clerical and governing elites.

Mr. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad represent the most hard-core elements of a conservative establishment, which in the current dispute has been opposed for the first time by a united front of moderate conservatives such as Larijani and Hashemi Rafsanjani (the head of the Assembly of Experts and the second most powerful man in Iran), and reformist icons such as Mehdi Korrubi and former President Mohammad Khatami. Together, these individuals represent an increasingly powerful political coalition that is far more open toward social and political liberalization at home and diplomatic engagement abroad.

If the West chooses to remain engaged with Iran, it may find a weakened Ahmadinejad more accommodating toward its diplomatic overtures, if only as a means of outflanking his opposition. And so, a concerted dialogue with Iran will not only demonstrate that the West cares about containing Iran's regional military hegemony, it will offer moral and political support for the genuine expression of the will of the Iranian people at a time when the regime's authority is at an ebb. Most important, it will offer Iranians hope.

Hope may seem an inadequate reason to pursue engagement, and already voices within the American political establishment are calling on Obama to abandon his plans to talk to Iran, arguing that the tried and tested policies of diplomatic isolation have proved their worth.

And they have: They have failed to make any changes in the Iranian regime for 30 years. But if the West keeps talking to Iran, it can empower its citizens to change their society from the ground up, and to influence those who have the capacity to act from the top down.

Reza Aslan, a columnist for The Daily Beast, is the author of "How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.