President Obama should talk to the mullahs all he wants, but he shouldn't give them anything they want because the United States will get nothing worthwhile in return. There are three reasons why this is the case.
First, the regime in Tehran knows that it cannot hold onto power through democratic means. It invokes a false Islamic legitimacy and uses harsh rule to maintain power. The mullahs know their "Islamic Republic" is antithetical to the interests of the United States and other Western powers in the Middle East, and that both will try to destabilize their government no matter what. The regime believes that mastering the nuclear cycle and having surrogates around the world, especially in the Middle East, is the only way to ensure its survival from external threats.
Second, Tehran has managed to paint Washington as the enemy of Islam. The mullahs go to great lengths to convince the average Iranian that the United States-"the Great Satan"-is in fact at war with Islam. They cite U.S. support for Israel, the killing of Iraqi Muslims and Washington's repeated attempts to control Tehran as proof that Iran needs the clerical regime to defend its people against sinister outsiders. Thus a thoroughly hostile relationship with "Great Satan" buys the mullahs support among the less educated, and the regime is not likely to ever want to change its skewed depiction of America.
Third, the regime sees opening up to the West and the United States as the road to its eventual downfall. The mullahs realize that Iranians could, in time, see Americans and U.S. corporations as helpful to their hopes for a better economic future and would cease to believe the government's venomous rhetoric. The people would come to demand more freedom once they no longer see Americans as being evil or against Islam, undermining the mullahs' dictatorial rule entirely.
The mullahs will talk and try to get all they can, but they will not fully cooperate with the U.S. in the peace process, or in Iraq and Afghanistan. They see America as a lesser threat if it is disliked in the Muslim world and is pinned down in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Tehran has no interest in seeing an America that is appreciated and that may appeal to more and more Iranians. Still, for appearances, the regime will begin a slow and tortuous dialogue with Washington. It will demand immediate concessions from the United States and give nothing of substance in return. The regime will demand universal settlement of a dispute over foreign military sales-the U.S. program to sell military equipment and services to foreign governments-that has dragged on for years in a painful line-by-line process at The Hague. The United States will in all likelihood make an offer in the $500 million to $1 billion range, while Iran will probably demand an amount in the vicinity of $20 billion. Iran will demand the immediate removal of all UN and U.S. sanctions as well as noninterference and nonaggression pacts. Iran will demand the withdrawal of the U.S. military from the region. It will try to get some of these concessions while giving lip-service support to U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will refuse to stop supporting Hezbollah unless the United States stops supporting regimes and factions in the region and removes all its military assets, something they know full well Washington will not accept. All the while, the regime will continue to work on its nuclear program. If indeed the mullahs accept an eventual compromise on their atomic ambitions-which is highly unlikely-one can be sure they would have secured a secret site somewhere else in Iran to buy more time.
This is the reality facing the Obama administration. The White House should get inside the thinking of the regime in Tehran to see why long-term rapprochement will never work as long as the mullahs are in power and act accordingly.
Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.