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.