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The Nation: Iran's Bad Deal

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures to supporters in Isfahan, 240 miles south of Tehran on Wednesday April 8, 2009. Iran's hard-line president has said that his country welcomes talks with the United States should the American president prove to be "honest" in extending its hand toward Iran, one of the strongest signals yet that Tehran welcomes Barack Obama's calls for dialogue. Amir Pourmandi/AP photo/ISNA news agency hide caption

toggle caption Amir Pourmandi/AP photo/ISNA news agency

Now comes the hard part.

When I left Tehran early Monday morning, I felt guilty. Guilty because I was leaving behind the faces of the hundreds of people I talked to, met with, had tea with, and interviewed who were backers of the failed presidential campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi. In their faces, in their eyes, I saw the hope of a new Iran. They told me, passionately, that wanted freedom — yes, freedom from the requirement of the hijab, but more important, freedom of expression, to speak freely, to have an independent media, to create works of art that don't have to be reviewed by the know-nothings of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

So what's the hard part? The fact that the United States is going to have to talk with the regime of President Ahmadinejad. And not only talk, but make a deal.

The people who wanted change aren't going to get it. The regime is too powerful, and it controls all the levers of power: the army, the police, the Revolutionary Guard and paramilitary groups, thuggish militias, the judiciary and courts, the media, and more. Those who hope that the reformists, including Mousavi, former President Khatami, and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, will support a revolt that makes use of the mass movement against Ahmadinejad will find their hopes dashed.

The Guardian Council and the powers-that-be, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, won't permit the election to be reversed. And they won't allow a popular movement to develop against it, despite the massive outpouring of anger, bitterness and resentment that has led hundreds of thousands of Iranians to gather in Tehran and other cities around the country.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of many Iranians I spoke with, the election was absurdly rigged. It's unlikely that they even counted the ballots, in fact, just posted a final number and called it quits. But whether the election was rigged or not, Ahmadinejad will be president of Iran until 2013.

That makes it exceedingly difficult for President Obama. First, it's hard because Ahmadinejad himself is virtually radioactive for American politicians. (As one Iranian told me in Tehran, anticipating that a US-Iran dialogue could start with exchanges between Congress and Iran's Majlis, "Can you imagine Howard Berman [chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee] standing next to Ahmadinejad?") That makes it politically difficult, extremely so in my opinion, for Obama to bring the American body politic and public opinion along on the ride to better US-Iran ties. And second, it will be even more difficult because for the next four years Ahmadinejad will be viewed as an illegitimate president who stole the election. So it's tough to imagine Obama dealing with a president who's bellicose and defiant, on one hand, and a usurper, on the other.

Still, it's got to be done.

From all factions, Iranians in Tehran told me that both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad want a deal with the United States. In fact, it is perhaps the one way that they can shore up their position at home, by showing that they can deal with the West. The Iranian leadership knows that Ahmadinejad is radioactive in the United States, and several insiders suggested that the Office of the Supreme Leader wants to create a post of special envoy for talks with the West, and with Obama, so that Ahmadinejad doesn't have to be point man. We'll see.

Part of the problem, from the Iranian side, is that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad seem to have a wildy inflated idea of Iran's power and influence. They mistakenly believe that Iran is dealing with the West from a "position of strength," when in fact Iran is in an extremely vulnerable position: it has no allies, it has a weak and crumbling economy, its oil output is falling, and it is desperately short of needed technology in high-tech, civil aviation, and oil and gas industries. If they really believe that Iran is powerful, even regionally, it could lead Iran's Khamenei-Ahmadinejad axis to overestimate their ability to strike a strong bargain — in which case, the talks will go nowhere.

On the American side, I think Obama has handled an extremely delicate situation just about right. But he needs to go further, and the best step he could take would be to stop saying that the military option for Iran is "on the table." (In fact, the military option is always on the table, but he doesn't have to say so.) Making threats against Iran just bolsters the hardliners and undermines the pro-democracy movement.

Here, by the way, is the full text of Obama's remarks about Iran yesterday, when he was asked about the civil unrest in Iran and whether or not he is willing "to meet with Mr. Ahmadinejad without preconditions":

Obviously all of us have been watching the news from Iran. And I want to start off by being very clear that it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be; that we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran, which sometimes the United States can be a handy political football — or discussions with the United States.

Having said all that, I am deeply troubled by the violence that I've been seeing on television. I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected. And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they're, rightfully, troubled.

My understanding is, is that the Iranian government says that they are going to look into irregularities that have taken place. We weren't on the ground, we did not have observers there, we did not have international observers on hand, so I can't state definitively one way or another what happened with respect to the election. But what I can say is that there appears to be a sense on the part of people who were so hopeful and so engaged and so committed to democracy who now feel betrayed. And I think it's important that, moving forward, whatever investigations take place are done in a way that is not resulting in bloodshed and is not resulting in people being stifled in expressing their views.

Now, with respect to the United States and our interactions with Iran, I've always believed that as odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements, as deep as the differences that exist between the United States and Iran on a range of core issues, that the use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy — diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries — is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national security interests, specifically, making sure that we are not seeing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East triggered by Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon; making sure that Iran is not exporting terrorist activity. Those are core interests not just to the United States but I think to a peaceful world in general.

We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we'll see where it takes us. But even as we do so, I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we've seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was. And they should know that the world is watching.

And particularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.

Nice touch, the comment about the "youth of Iran."

Right-wingers in the United States are already comparing the Iranian unrest to Hungary, 1956, and calling on the United States to give its full support to the Green Wave. Nothing could be stupider. What they miss is that President Obama's outreach to Iran, including his Cairo speech — which got a word-by-word exegesis prepared for Khamenei and was widely viewed by many Iranians — is in part responsible for the sudden upsurge of support for Mousavi. And it happened not because Obama called for military action in Iran, and not because Obama backed Mousavi, but precisely because he didn't. Yes, Obama could go further, by renouncing force in dealing with Iran, and he should. But US meddling in Iranian politics would be counterproductive, to say the least.

At Tehran airport, as I was leaving Iran yesterday morning, I ran into a senior adviser to Karroubi, the reformist candidate and cleric. A few days earlier, I'd met with him in the lobby of a hotel in Tehran to talk about the election. Now, in the aftermath of the election, he was gloomy, saying the Iran's security forces had a list of people to arrest, and they were doing so steadily — so he was getting out. In his mind, there's no question that the election was bogus. Despite the street protests, he said, there was little that the opposition can do, in the face of the regime's power. Changing Iran, he said, is a long-term project.

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