Forget unemployment, global warming, health care or even Afghanistan. The biggest challenge facing Barack Obama in 2010 and beyond is how best to navigate the unrest in Iran.
Saber rattling won’t help. I was among those critical of the administration’s initial reaction to the post-election demonstrations, and clearly the opposition would like some assurances that the world’s greatest democracy is on their side. Determined, back-channel diplomacy might.
Isolating the illegal regime makes the most sense. Holding negotiations with the mullahs’ flunky would grant legitimacy to an increasingly desperate Ahmadinejad.
“To do otherwise would be to betray millions of Iranians who have been defrauded and have risked their lives to have their votes count,” wrote Roger Cohen back in July. “To do otherwise would be to allow Khamenei to gloat that, in the end, what the United States respects is force. To do otherwise would be to embrace the usurpers.”
It’s not like there’s many options. Ahmadinejad won’t negotiate because that would eliminate the nationalism card. It’s about all he has left to play.
You can’t understate the significance of a new regime in Iran. Remember, the overthrow of the Shah was the first major victory for the fundamentalists, emboldening a generation of Islamic theocrats. Losing Iran would be a major psychological blow, particularly to a movement fueled by an arrogance that only they speak for God.