The Magazine

2010: Regime Change in Iran

Engagement Didn't Work.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to meet with leaders of rogue states "without preconditions." He said the foreign policy of the United States had become too aggressive, even domineering, under George W. Bush. We had made too many demands and spent too much time lecturing and too little time listening. An Obama administration would use "smart power" to change all of that. Iran would be the first and most urgent test.

The new president started early.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said in his Inaugural Address, employing language he would use repeatedly about Iran over his first year in office. "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

The speech was an extended hand. And the response was a clenched fist. "Obama is the hand of Satan in a new sleeve," said a spokesman for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. "The Great Satan now has a black face."

Obama was not discouraged. He offered best wishes on the Iranian New Year in March, promising "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." His administration then proposed face-to-face meetings to discuss nuclear issues. Obama wrote directly to Khamenei in May, renewing the offers of friendship. When the regime brazenly stole the presidential election in June, Obama refused to question the results. (White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would later call Ahmadinejad the "elected leader" of Iran.) And when the regime violently cracked down on the nationwide postelection protests--jailing some opposition leaders and killing others--Obama worried primarily about any perception of U.S. "meddling" in internal Iranian disputes and repeated the American commitment to engagement. When Iran failed to meet a September deadline for answers on nuclear negotiations, Obama gave them until the end of the year. When Obama announced that Iran was building a secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom, which could have no peaceful uses, he coupled his announcement with an offer for more talks.

And on it went.

As often as not, Iran failed to respond to these goodwill gestures. And when it did, the responses were uniformly negative and usually hostile. Khamenei accused Obama of following the "crooked ways" of George W. Bush. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Iran was "running the show" on nuclear issues and vowed that Iran would "never negotiate" about its nuclear program. The Iranian government accused the Obama administration of orchestrating the opposition rallies and mocked his private missives. And last week, when the Obama administration reminded the Iranian regime of the new deadline for negotiations, Ahmadinejad dismissed the gentle chiding, saying: "They say we have given Iran until the end of the Christian year. Who are they anyway? It is we who have given them an opportunity." The international community, he added, can give "as many deadlines as they want, we don't care."

The problem, it turns out, was not George W. Bush. It wasn't a lack of American goodwill or our failure to acknowledge mistakes or our underdeveloped national listening skills. The problem is the Iranian regime.

This should have been clear from the beginning, and should have been glaringly obvious after the fraudulent election and the deadly response to the brave Iranians who questioned the results. There were plenty of clues: an Iranian president who routinely denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel; a long record of using terrorism as an instrument of state power; the provision of safe haven to senior al Qaeda leaders in the months and years after the 9/11 attacks; and a policy, approved at the highest levels of the Iranian leadership, of trying to kill Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What should now be clear, even to the letter-writers of the Obama administration, is that the only way to solve the problem is to change the regime. Obama missed a unique opportunity to undermine the regime after the elections this summer, when it was as fragile as it has been since the 1979 revolution. It may well be too late, but there are still things the leader of the free world should do.

The president has signaled that his patience with Iranian intransigence will end with the close of 2009. It's time for Obama to signal a dramatic change in strategy. Quickly and decisively after the New Year, he should do four things: (1) Make clear that he is on the side of the Iranian opposition and will do everything he can to add to their strength. (2) Enact the toughest possible sanctions on Iran--especially targeting refining capabilities--with broad international support if available, but with as many allies as will go along or unilaterally, if not. (3) Make clear that he will be taking a zero tolerance view of Iranian support for terrorism, including the deliberate targeting of U.S. diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. (4) Make clear that the use of force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons isn't off the table, and order the military to be ready to act should it become necessary.

In 2009, we tried to engage the Iranian regime. In 2010, let's try to change it.

--Stephen F. Hayes