The hope was that President Obama could be a bridge to the Arab and Muslim world. The United States, abandoning the "axis of evil" rhetoric, would extend a hand of goodwill, and the ideologues and dictators would be induced to unclench their fists. In particular, the argument went, civilized dialogue with Iran was more likely if we chose to treat its external conduct separately from its internal character. Such an approach, not threatening the Islamic republic's claim, would give us a better chance of restraining its nuclear ambitions and its support for terrorism.
Obama did his bit to press the reset button with grace and eloquence. He apologized for America and its past conduct in the region; he avowed respect for the Iranian government; he was the most restrained of the Western leaders when the ayatollahs violently suppressed protests by millions of Iranians over a flawed election.
And what was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's response? Ridicule in sermons and speeches and the assertion that Obama's agents had been behind the protests. Raising the level of insult, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demanded that Obama apologize for his later, sharper critique: Obama said he was "appalled" by the violence, but he said this only after days of denunciation from Republicans and after both houses of Congress condemned Iran's crackdown. We are still waiting for Iran to unclench its fists.
As commentator Robert Kaplan put it in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, this Iranian struggle is "now as central to our foreign policy as that for democracy in Eastern Europe in the 1980s." Why? Because Iran is the critical fulcrum in an unstable region. A radical Iranian leader can incite the mob; an Iranian reformer could energize the emerging bourgeoisie to expand the rule of law and move toward true democracy.
The upheaval in Iran has been an impressive and moving demonstration of how millions of Iranians feel. But it has greatly diminished the chances that the Iranian leadership will bend on the issues that count for us, especially the pursuit of nuclear weapons. If anything, the uprising has intensified a shift to an ideological military dictatorship, committed to its version of revolutionary Islam that neither needs nor wants an accommodation with the West. The violence we have seen should dispel any illusions that this regime is capable of internal evolution toward moderation. As one commentator put it, "The real question is not whether or not to go to war against Iran but how to end the war that Iran has been waging against the U.S. for three decades."
The rigidity and thuggery inflicted by Iran on its own people are a mirror image of its approach to outsiders. And it is more than ever clear that this emanates from the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. In fact, we can now see two Irans: one that supports the determination of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to transform the republic into an emirate in the service of the Islamic cause, another that yearns to be an ordinary nation under the rule of law.
We can hope that the sight of millions of protesters might, in the longer term, have some effect on the internal dynamics. In the meantime, what should our policy be? Former Prime Minister Tony Blair put it well: "Engaging with Iran is entirely sensible. . . . The Iranian government should not be able to claim that we have refused the opportunity for constructive dialogue. . . . The purpose of such engagement should, however, be clear. It is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, but it is more than that. It is to put a stop to the Iranian regime's policy of destabilization and the support of terrorism."
We still will have to contend with President Ahmadinejad, who declares the country's nuclear ambition is a "closed file," settled beyond discussion. Here is a man who is against the United States, against Europe, against the Arabs, including the Egyptians and the Saudis, against the reformists at home, against homosexuals, against liberalizing the economy, against the Chinese, against Israel, against the historical record of the Holocaust (even as he promises to inflict a new one on Israel), a man who literally believes that a halo began to appear around his head after his United Nations speech several years ago. He is an apt personification of a regime that has lost its legitimacy and chooses to see America as its main enemy.