"If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," President Obama declared during his January interview with al-Arabiyya. Indeed, since taking office, Barack Obama has gone out of his way to extend his hand to the Iranian regime. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's dubious victory in Iran's June 11 election has sparked massive protests on the Iranian street – the likes of which Iran has not witnessed since 1979. This presents a dilemma for Mr. Obama whose Iran policy is based on engaging with the Iranian regime, at the expense of showing real solidarity with its people. That policy is likely to be unsustainable in the long term.
Take Iran's electoral process. Were all votes to be recounted and "reformist" presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi found to have won, it would not make the Iranian election process any more democratic. Long before the elections took place, Iran's Council of Guardians – a committee of twelve members charged with certifying the Islamic credentials of any candidate for elective office – disqualified hundreds of potential candidates, dwindling the list down to just four. And the Council of Guardians would not make their selection without the blessing of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the true power behind Iran's clerical system. A different electoral result, therefore, would not substantially impact Iran's nuclear program. That portfolio rests in Khamenei's hands, rather than those of the president. Nor would it diminish the truckload of outstanding issues upon which the U.S. and Iran disagree.
The real thorn in America's side predates the discovery of the Iranian nuclear program – America's problem is the Iranian regime itself. It is manifested in the Islamic Republic's support for international terrorism, its abysmal human rights record, and its violent rejection of all attempts at Middle East peace. The nuclear issue is but the latest bone of contention tacked on to the West's long list of grievances with the current regime in Tehran. The issue therefore, is not a nuclear capability per se; it is what that regime could do with it.
"We are engaged in a process to reach out to Iran and persuade them that it is not in their interest to pursue a nuclear weapon and that they should change course," Mr. Obama explained after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May. But he is likely to find his words falling on deaf ears precisely because nuclear possession is, in fact, in the regime's interest. The nuclear option presents Iran's rulers with the assurance that the West will not act against them, no matter how rogue their behavior. One need look no further than the feckless international response to North Korea's recent saber rattling to appreciate the logic of this assumption. So imagine the results if Iran had nuclear weapons today while the people were taking to the streets. In other words, the "robust political debate" – as President Obama has described the drama now playing out on Iranian streets – may well be the last opportunity for the West to confront an Iran that does not have a nuclear deterrent.
Washington should seize the moment. In his historic June 4th speech in Cairo, the President clarified his commitment "to governments that reflect the will of the people" on issues such as human rights, political pluralism and transparent governance. Today, there is no clearer example of a clash between these ideals and entrenched authoritarianism than in Iran. The U.S. can take this opportunity to make clear that it stands in the proper place – with the Iranian people, and all those opposed to business as usual with Iran's repressive regime.