Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami is visiting the United States this week—just when his country’s continued defiance of the United Nations over its suspected nuclear weapons program could spark a push for global economic sanctions. Khatami couldn’t have made his trip at a more propitious time given the recent careless talk about the U.S.-inspired “regime change” in that country.
At one point, Khatami was a powerful inspiration for his country’s democratic reformers back in the late 1990s, but those days are long past now. U.S. conservatives talk about sparking regime change in Tehran via U.S. military strikes on Iran’s military and nuclear installations believing that everyday Iranians want to throw out their country’s current rulers in favor of reformist. Alas, Khatami—a shell of his former political self—highlights to what great degree the reformists in Iran are in disarray.
Like it or not, the conservative regime led by current president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad is likely to remain in power for some time to come. Although he’s unpopular, the majority of Iranians would surely rally to his side if the United States attacked their country. Despite Iranians’ many complaints about Ahmandinejad, they are proud of his defiance against the U.S. Indeed, at almost every other level, Iranians find their president and other hardliners to be mostly inept and corrupt.
That’s why the threat of economic sanctions in tandem with serious negotiations to end Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons is the correct policy for Washington to follow. Iran is five to ten years away from actually building a nuclear weapon, which means now’s the time to demonstrate to Iran’s citizens the grave economic cost of Ahmadinejad’s defiance via economic sanctions.
At the same time, negotiating with Tehran would demonstrate that the U.S. is not intent on attacking Iran, which in turn would show the Iranian people that any economic suffering on their part rests with their hard-line leaders, not those in Washington. The Bush administration continues to oppose direct talks with Iran when America has everything to gain from direct diplomacy and very little to lose over the next several years.
Iranian society today is a complex mix of religious fervor, strong nationalist sentiments, and pervasive economic unease. Regime change would only strengthen the more hard-line tendencies in Iran today. Carefully arranged direct negotiations in league with calibrated sanctions just might focus Iranians’ minds on what they really want—a prosperous, more open society rather than further diplomatic and economic isolation in pursuit of weapons that might one day lead to war and destruction.