It looks like Ahmadinejad may be cleverly manipulating the system. While in New York for the UN General Assembly, the Iranian president said he'd be willing to allow Iranian nuclear experts to talk with American scientists to help resolve Washington's concerns, and it seems these cheery developments-along with revelations that Tehran has built a secret enrichment facility-make it almost certain that the White House will engage Iran on October 1.
There's just one problem, however: this is absolutely the wrong time to initiate a dialogue with the regime in Tehran. Talking to the mullahs would indicate a failure on the part of the Obama administration to adjust to prevailing conditions; it would send the wrong message to the people of Iran; and it would further poison our relations with the Muslim world.
The United States has had no meaningful relationship with Iran in roughly thirty years. During this time, there have been plenty of situations where better relations with Tehran could have helped-9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East peace process, the Israeli-Lebanese conflict to name a few-but we chose not to engage Iran because of our distrust of the regime and our unwillingness to afford the mullahs legitimacy. Now, after the regime has shown its worst side in thirty years-with rigged elections, a total disregard for human rights and the brutal treatment of its citizens-we decide that we must engage Iran urgently! Yes, candidate Obama took the position that he would negotiate with Iran if elected, but conditions have changed dramatically since November 2008 and he should adjust his policies to these developments.
What talking to the mullahs tells the world, and especially those in the Muslim world who see the United States allied with all manner of dictators in Muslim countries, is that Washington feels more comfortable dealing with vulnerable dictators than with legitimate regimes that have the support of their people. Today's Iranian government is at its weakest in thirty years. It lacks legitimacy. The opposition is hopeful, it is continuing with anti-regime demonstrations and it has not been frightened into submission. Iran's economy is in a total mess. Dialogue with the United States will give Ahmadinejad and Khamenei legitimacy. Engagement will strengthen the mullahs at the expense of the Iranian people. Is this what President Obama wants?
There is no real urgency for a dialogue. Engagement could wait for at least another six months. The American obsession with Iran's nuclear program should not be allowed to determine U.S. policy toward Tehran. No matter what happens in talks with the United States or what the mullahs profess, the regime will continue to pursue its enrichment program secretly to the point that it is in a position to develop a bomb in quick order. Friday's revelation of another "secret" enrichment facility is only the latest case in point. The mullahs will never trust Washington's intentions as to regime change in Tehran. They view their nuclear program as the best deterrence against an American assault. For the same reason, they are unlikely to forego their support of Hamas and of Hezbollah, and their backing in Afghanistan will be half-hearted and of limited value to the United States, because in reality they want a weakened United States. The same applies in Iraq.
Could there be a dark side to this engagement initiative scheduled to begin on October 1? Perhaps Washington has already held discussions with the regime in Tehran. Maybe they have already come to an agreement: the mullahs will let all those arrested in the recent crackdown go free, Washington will claim that dialogue has resulted in the freeing of innocent citizens and in the advancement of human rights and the mullahs will "magnanimously" state that they are confident the United States is not a party to any sort of velvet revolution.
Sadly, the October 1 meeting will simply eradicate any hope of the current regime falling anytime soon at the hands of the Iranian people. This is not the time to lend a helping hand to the mullahs to gain international legitimacy; instead it's time to support the aspirations of the Iranian people.
Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.