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Charm Offensive

You could almost hear the international sigh of relief that greeted President Obama's videotaped message to Iran last week. After eight years of bluster and threats, an American president civilly addressed both Iran's people and its leaders; he spoke of mutual respect, of Iran's role in making the world "a better and more beautiful place," of "shared hopes" and "common dreams." The buzz among ordinary Iranians inside and outside Iran was overwhelmingly positive. But I couldn't help but think of an instant message I received from a young journalist in Iran the day Obama was elected. "When is your olive branch coming," he wrote sardonically, "so we can reject it?"

Sure enough, the response to Obama's remarks from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the head of the Iranian state and the commander of its armed forces, was swift and negative. Khamenei told a crowd in Mashhad on March 21 that America's extended hand looked like an iron fist encased in a velvet glove. Recalling American support for Iraq in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and the United States's accidental shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, Khamenei wondered aloud if Obama was changing America's policy or only its rhetoric:

Did you release Iran's frozen assets? Did you lift the sanctions against us? Did you give up slandering and broadcasting negative propaganda against our nation? Did you give up your unconditional support for the Zionist regime? … In any case, all the American officials as well as other people must know that the Iranian nation will not be deceived or intimidated.

With that, Khamenei laid dead the notion that the problem between the United States and Iran could be resolved simply through outreach, however gracious, on the part of an American president. There was a dignity to the leader's message: He would not be flattered by superficial niceties, like the show of familiarity with Persian tradition. He would believe change when he saw it.

But there was also a desperate anachronism in his return to grievances from the 1980s, as though he were trying to coax a flame from a blackening ember at a time when the populations of both countries have long since moved on. In Iran, ordinary people and even much of the political elite would welcome renewed ties with the United States. But the regime is controlled by a core of hardliners whose raison d'etre is threatened by such a prospect. This part of the Iranian political establishment draws its authority from revolutionary ideology and the armed militias it spawned. Anti-Americanism is not merely an incidental, easily dispensable part of its foreign policy. It is a fundamental first principle that justifies the existence of the revolutionary regime.

President Obama is no fool. Surely his message was calculated to produce the image of Iran's leadership standing athwart its people, harkening them to the past. Many Iranians associate their government's 30-year stand-off with the United States with the country's deepening woes. The economy is a shambles; even the most moderate opposition has been closed out of the political system, while many of its supporters have been intimidated into silence or exile; and the paramilitary forces and police have stepped up control of the streets. Now an appealing new American president, one whose middle name is Hussein and whose last name sounds like the phrase "he is with us" in Farsi, has come on the air to suggest a new era of respectful engagement. If anyone stands in the way of that, it will be Iran's own leadership, not an easy strawman like George W. Bush. It's a move Obama honed on Congressional Republicans before he took it to Iran, using little but courtesy and a smile to call the Iranian regime's bluff and ratchet up the pressure on it to engage.

For too long in this country, our debate has turned on the simplistic question of whether the Iranian regime is pragmatic or ideological in its foreign policy, and therefore whether we should talk to it or threaten it. In my view, it is pragmatic, and we should talk to it. But to say that the Iranian regime is pragmatic is to say that it pursues its interests, rather than acting on ideological conviction at all costs. It does not tell us what the Iranian regime's interests are.

There can be no more urgent interest than the regime's own survival, which is threatened by internal pressure for democratization. The anti-American and anti-Israeli stances bind the hardliners to their small but loyal and heavily armed constituency, and they furnish a pretext for domestic repression, as members of the opposition are jailed and tarred with accusations of participating in American or Zionist plots to overthrow the government. To give up this trump card--the non-relationship with the United States, the easy evocation of an external bogeyman--would be costly for the Iranian leadership. It would be a Gorbachevian signal that the revolution is entering a dramatically new phase--one Iran's leaders cannot be certain of surviving in power.

The Bush administration got this dynamic all wrong when it insisted that Iran meet preconditions before coming to the negotiating table. The working assumption was that the lure of talks with the United States would be powerful enough to impel the Iranians to make a major concession. But what if talking to the United States is itself a concession--perhaps one of the toughest for the Iranians to make? That puts us in the very different, far less advantageous position of needing to offer Iran something it truly wants--like a security guarantee--up front. That's appeasement, critics might object: How can we give up our trump card right at the outset? It looks bad if you think of it as unilateral disarmament. It looks less bad if you consider that the very act of entering direct talks with us means something for the Iranian regime that it doesn't mean for us.

Iran and the United States do have common interests, particularly in Afghanistan, where Iran's positive role in the 2001 Bonn Conference has been cited frequently as proof that it can be flexible and pragmatic in foreign policy. But there is a big difference between such tactical cooperation and the game-changing, symbolic move of re-establishing direct relations. The former doesn't come free, but the price for the latter will be much higher for both countries. What is the United States prepared to give in exchange for a far-reaching d?tente with Iran? Will the Iranians sit down with us if the agenda includes human rights? Should we sit down with them if it doesn't?

The good news from the recent exchange of messages between the two leaders is that the stakes, right now, look promisingly low. Ayatollah Khamenei seemed to suggest he'd be open to a goodwill gesture short of a security guarantee. And Obama, rather than threatening the Iranian regime, looks to be trying to embarrass it to the table. The bad news is that, down the line, both governments face intractable dilemmas. For the Iranians, it's the question of how far the regime can bend without breaking. For America, it's the perennial conflict between our interests and our values: Rapprochement with an oppressive and unpopular regime in Tehran could solve many geopolitical problems, but it would also recall America's shortsighted policy toward the Shah. Many American opinion-makers seem prepared to sacrifice human rights for national interests in Iran, but President Obama will fundamentally change this most vexing relationship only if he figures out a way to reconcile them.

Laura Secor is a 2008-2009 Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, where she is working on a book about Iran.

By Laura Secor