Is Obama about to play into Ahmadinejad’s hands?

As President Obama arrives empty-handed at the end of his year-long attempt to persuade Iran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program, a curious paradox has emerged. Even if intensified--and highly costly--sanctions were to force the regime to comply with Western demands, an agreement between Tehran and Washington would benefit one party above all: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the illegitimate government that he now leads. If deeper sanctions in the first instance will be seen as a lifeline by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad (allowing them to appeal to nationalist sentiment and tighten their grip on the economy), an actual agreement--blessed by the U.N. Security Council--will enable the leadership to claim victory without actually impeding its repressive rule. This has everything to do with the earthquake of the June elections and its brutal aftermath. With the regime’s very existence now in the balance, agreeing to freeze its nuclear program is not a threat, but an opportunity.

The fracturing of the Islamic Republic’s traditional elite, and the persistence and power of Iran’s democratic awakening six months later, make clear that a regime change is under way in Iran--one that is indigenous, sustainable, democratic in spirit, and peaceful in its means. It is the most promising development in the broader Middle East in the past quarter-century. Rather than being viewed as a sideshow, the uprising should be at the core of every policy decision regarding Iran. Western leaders should ask themselves just one question whenever faced with a new set of measures toward Iran: Will they help or hurt the Green Movement?

For all the concern about a fitful and still highly vulnerable nuclear program, a far greater prize is now in sight: a freer society and an accountable government under the rule of law. An opportunity now exists to encourage the evolution of a democratic Iran--through careful, calibrated, and principled policies that refuse to be baited by the crude and bellicose behavior of a usurper president. The premise of Obama’s initial engagement approach seemed to reflect an understanding of this extraordinary potential. The question now is whether the shift to a policy of pressure, threats, and further isolation will trade the promise of transformative change for the illusion of a security arrangement with a regime built on an edifice of enmity with the West.

The past six months have made three things quite clear: The regime is unlikely to compromise meaningfully on the nuclear issue, at least not within an acceptable timeframe; it is not going to relax its repression of the domestic opposition; and it is not going to temper its hostile rhetoric toward Israel. Seen through this prism of an implacable regime confronting an unprecedented movement for Iranian modernity and moderation, defaulting to an unimaginative policy singularly focused on non-proliferation may turn out to be a historic mistake. One need not be uniquely expert on Chinese or Russian foreign policy to appreciate that the Western desperation for their support in the councils of global opinion is a veritable Christmas tree of strategic bargaining, with ever higher costs to be extracted from Washington. One does not have to spend long studying the new landscape of global options available to rogue states such as Iran in forging alliances of convenience with rising powers such as Turkey, Brazil, and Indonesia to understand that effective isolation in the 21st century is illusory.

In the coming weeks and months, a new Iran may be won or lost. Before being led down a fateful, and strategically barren, path of sanctions and threats focused exclusively on the nuclear program, Obama might wish to consider the question of Iran worthy of a high-level strategic review of its own. He might ask his advisors if a predictable set of tortured Security Council negotiations in February will achieve anything but a further divided international community and an accelerated nuclear program in Tehran. He could probe the possibility of providing Israel with additional security guarantees robust enough to dissuade it from a calamitous strike on Iran. He can press his intelligence agencies to develop further ways to disable and delay the nuclear program through even more creative covert operations. He should ask for a set of credible containment options built around a box of red lines within which the process of democratic reform would have time and space to take irreversible hold. And he might ask himself whom he’d rather greet at the White House in the first visit of an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution: a standard bearer of the Green Movement of 2009 or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Nader Mousavizadeh, a special assistant to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1997 to 2003, is a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Parts of this article originally appeared in The Times of London.

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