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Obama's Engagement Policy with Iran Is Dead. What's Next?

Barack Obama’s plan to “engage” Iran was, ever since he raised the subject in the presidential campaign, always a foggy and ill-defined notion.

In the first presidential debate John McCain asked, “So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, ‘We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,’ and we say, ‘No, you’re not’? Oh, please.”

It was never clear what could be achieved by engagement or what magic words Obama might utter that had not been transmitted to the mullahs by our European allies or through other channels for years now.

But in the fog of tear gas and the spray of fire hoses used on peaceful protestors, the Iranian regime has revealed its true nature, for any who were confused. Now even the president must concede: “There is no doubt that any direct dialogue or diplomacy with Iran is going to be affected by the events of the last several weeks.”

To paraphrase McCain, “So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, ‘We’re going to slaughter our own people and maintain our revolutionary Islamic state while continuing to support terrorist groups,’ and we say, ‘No, you’re not’? Oh, please.”

For now the president has thankfully stopped equating Ahmadinejad and Mousavi and ceased to use the honorific title “supreme leader.” He hasn’t suggested lately that we need to “engage more than ever.” But it is uncertain what he intends to do now.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar counsels that passivity now would be a mistake. In the Wall Street Journal he analogizes to the Soviet Union, writing that if  “there hadn’t been dissidents in the Soviet Union, the Communist regime never would have crumbled. And if the West hadn’t been concerned about their fate, Soviet leaders would have ruthlessly done away with them.”  He cautions that the mullahs will not “reward us for silence or inaction” and chides Obama:

Delayed public displays of indignation may be good for internal political consumption. But the consequences of Western inaction have already materialized. Watching videos of innocent Iranians being brutalized, it’s hard to defend silence.

So what will the Obama administration do now that its hopes for a grand bargain with the mullahs is too improbable even for the deal-makers in Foggy Bottom? The administration is not without means to influence the course of events in Iran — and to signal to other advocates of democracy and human rights around the globe that America remains on their side.

First, Senators Lieberman, Graham, and McCain have introduced legislation to help fund Radio Farsa, Voice of America, and a Farsi-language website for news and  to give Iranian dissidents tools to evade the regime’s censorship efforts. Lieberman explained:

We’ve seen that the Iranian regime has tried to deploy new technologies to restrict its people from getting access to information, prevent its people from exercising their freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, particularly online.

The Iranian government has jammed satellites and radio broadcasts, disrupted cell phone service, monitored Internet use, and blocked particular Web sites. It’s now trying to slam shut the door that a vibrant election had begun to open. The legislation we intend to introduce is inspired by a clear and simple purpose. We want the Iranian people to be able to stay one step ahead of the Iranian regime, getting access to information and safely exercising freedom of speech and freedom of assembly online.

Next, there is the Iran Petroleum Sanctions Act. This would require the president to impose sanctions on any entity that supplies refined petroleum to Iran, or that assists Iran in obtaining refined petroleum through shipping services, insurance, or financial assistance. The bill was introduced in April with bipartisan support from 27 Senators (including such diverse figures as Evan Bayh, Russ Feingold, Jon Kyl, Chuck Schumer and Tom Coburn) and now has more than 60 Senators supporters. A parallel measure sponsored by Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the panel’s ranking Republican, is pending in the House.

These measures, and continued clear and unequivocal rhetoric from the president, would signal both to fence-sitters in the Iranian regime and those protestors on the streets that there is only one viable path — regime change — if Iranians want a normalized relationship with the world and improvement in the lives of its citizens.

Indeed when both the editorial board of the Washington Post and former UN Ambassador John Bolton support regime change, perhaps it is a policy worth taking seriously by the Obama administration. After all, what is the alternative? As Bill Kristol explained on Fox News Sunday:

He is not going to be able to engage successfully with this regime if it cracks down. If it succeeds in staying in power, it’s going to be, I think, even more hostile than it has been, even less prone to make any kinds of concessions, et cetera. So is he willing to — is he just going to kind of mindlessly go on this path, and let them get nuclear weapons and possibly force Israel to take action if it feels it has to? Or is he going to actually rethink where he is and go for what — as the Washington Post put it yesterday, the serious realistic policy on Iran now is now to help accelerate regime change.

As for the most pressing concern, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the president would be well advised to direct his energy toward rallying international opinion and enforcing existing UN resolutions. We recall that the president had promised that if “talk” could not end the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran he would be willing to pursue tougher measures. Now seems to be that time. Certainly he will never have more public support at home and abroad for denying the mullahs the capability to threaten Israel and its other neighbors with a nuclear holocaust.

Toward that end the president might go back to edit his Cairo speech, wherein he declared “no single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons.” Perhaps he might make clear that not just one nation, but the nations in the “international community” have determined that Iran, most especially in light of its recent behavior, cannot continue to defy “international norms and agreements” in pursuit of nuclear weapons which it would use to threaten its neighbors. We are told that when Obama speaks the world listens, so this would be a good time to start talking about a serious set of diplomatic and economic sanctions.

What we do know is that engagement is dead. We will see if Obama pursues any of these proactive measures or, instead, sinks into passivity, allowing the mullahs to crush the protestors — and with it,  all hope for a normal relationship between Iran and the rest of the world.