In dealing with Iran, I have favored caution, along with a strategy that does not hesitate to criticize but also to engage in a proactive fashion. To me, such an approach offers far more potential than the preferred method of the Bush administration, which has combined criticism with alienation. I look to the incoming Obama administration to change course.

To be clear, this desire to engage does not mean that I necessarily trust Iran’s leaders; in particular, I have problems with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In fact, I wish that the Iranian people would vote him out of office. Better yet, they should overturn the failed system that has straddled them since the revolution in the 1970s and shape a new reality for themselves.

Because the latter possibility appears remote, though, it is necessary to keep looking elsewhere. I sought the input of Sanam Vakil, an unusually perceptive Iran analyst and widely published commentator, on this matter. A scholar with the Middle East Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, she also teaches at the school’s center in Bologna, Italy.

Vakil advises President-elect Barack Obama to focus on the real source of power and decision-making in Iran. The Iranian system is factional and multifaceted, she notes. Thus, it has been very difficult for Americans to deconstruct it and understand where the actual source of power lies. Without doubt, Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric, combined with his position as president, has brought him much attention. However, she stresses, it is the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who is the arbiter and final decision-maker. And here is the key: Khamenei’s blessing is needed for any rapprochement. Therefore, Vakil says, it would behoove the Obama team to reach out to Khamenei’s office and not to conflicting levers of power.

Then, Vakil suggests, the Obama White House should emphasize areas of mutual interest and cooperation. Iran and the United States share a plethora of common concerns in the Middle East. She says that using these commonalities to build confidence between the two sides would help in addressing more challenging issues such as Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, since the revolution, Tehran has extended its regional power and influence in the hope of increasing its stature and relevance. Today, Vakil contends, Iran has been among the principal beneficiaries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also clear that years of Iranian marginalization and sanctions have only increased tensions between the United States and Iran. She maintains that including Iran and bringing it to the table as a regional player could be an important inducement in moderating Iranian behavior.

Next, Vakil urges Obama not to wait until after the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009 to begin discussions. Although the candidates are still undeclared, she says, many speculate that Ahmadinejad could be unseated due to the growing economic malaise. Certainly, it would be tempting to wait and focus on negotiations with a new Iranian administration, she says, but it is important to send Iran the right message – that negotiations do not depend on the outcome of the Iranian election.

As these efforts are playing out, Vakil underscores, Obama should resist the temptation to be easily frustrated by the slow-paced and backhanded negotiating tactics of the Iranian regime. Iranian representatives are experts at stalling and drawing out negotiations. They have demonstrated these tactics quite clearly for many years. The Obama team should be prepared for any and all Iranian attempts to distract and delay concessions, and maintain a firm commitment to a timetable and principles for cooperation. She says that Iranian strategies are part and parcel of the government’s attempts to cause disruptions, increase its negotiating leverage and exploit divisions in the international community.

Finally, Vakil recommends that Obama change the tenor of the dialogue away from threatening rhetoric. Since the inclusion of Iran as a leading member of the “axis of evil,” relations between Tehran and Washington have continued to sour. The Iranian establishment has strategically used such rhetoric as justification for its domestic crackdown against civil society. At the same time, Vakil notes, American threats provide fodder for Tehran to use against the United States and its attempts to contain Iran’s nuclear program and regional presence. A change of tone in Washington would prevent Tehran from manipulating American interests to the regime’s advantage, she concludes.

There you have it, a realistic, proactive, engagement strategy for Iran. Let us hope that the Obama administration, while exercising appropriate caution, tests its possibilities.

John C. Bersia won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000. Readers may send him e-mail at [email protected]


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