Globe Editorial

Iran’s crisis as an opportunity

August 10, 2009

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THE STALINESQUE trials of political opponents in Iran this summer are complicating President Obama’s policy of diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic - his signature departure from the “axis of evil’’ approach of his predecessor. But at the same time, the Iranian regime’s loss of credibility with much of its own population because of a stolen election may open up new opportunities for dialogue, and that could further Obama’s goal of getting the recalcitrant power to “unclench’’ its fist.

The show trials are a desperate ploy by a regime that has lost face at home and around the world. More than 100 opponents - many of them high officials and leaders of the late-1970s uprising against the Shah - are accused of conspiring with foreign intelligence. They are not being tried; they are being purged. Human-rights lawyers in Iran say the accused were abused in prison, prevented from seeing lawyers, and forced to make transparently bogus confessions. The regime would have Iranians believe that all complaints about a fraudulent election were plotted in advance of the June 12 balloting by those seeking to undermine the regime.

But the mayor of Tehran, himself a former commander of the regime’s elite Revolutionary Guards, has said 3 million people in his city were protesting election fraud a few days after the event. Those protesters won’t be fooled by bogus trials.

By all accounts, much of the Iranian public wants the regime to respond favorably to Obama’s offers of dialogue. Consequently, Obama is holding a card of great value to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his coterie. Next to annulling the rigged election result, the best way for the regime to recapture some of its lost legitimacy would be to take up Obama’s offer and to reach agreements on the nuclear issue as well as regional security and commercial relations.

Obama must keep the offer open - even if it means withstanding pressure from domestic critics who want him to do all he can to punish the regime’s police-state behavior. It will not be easy to ignore that kind of criticism. From a human-rights perspective, there can be no denying the repulsiveness of the crackdown on Iranians peacefully airing their grievances against an ever-more-militarized ruling elite.

Yet Obama has correctly made Iran the centerpiece of his turn toward a realistic foreign policy that seeks to substitute diplomacy for the leveling of threats whenever practical.

Still, the president needs to avoid appearing desperate to placate a regime that is now despised by many Iranians. His best chance to avoid a nasty choice between accepting Iran as a nuclear power and entering into a risky cycle of escalation is to patiently renew his invitation to a diplomatic negotiation - and to address that invitation to the entire Iranian nation, not merely to its ruthless current rulers.

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