There are many well-known reasons to oppose American “engagement” with Iran: the U.S. is not in a position of relative strength, but weakness; diplomacy will give Tehran the time it needs to complete its nuclear program; and there is very little chance of success. But there are critics who support diplomatic engagement with Iran – just not now.
I’ve already quoted Karim Sadjadpour, a proponent of dialogue, who advised, “Refrain from any grand overtures to Tehran which risk redeeming Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s policies and enhancing his bid for reelection in June of 2009.” Geneive Abdo of the Century Foundation makes the same case, but in a more detailed (thus, a more convincing) way. From her Foreign Policy article:
Ahmadinejad is far more likely to get an assist from Barack Obama-or rather, all the advisors on the U.S. president-elect’s foreign-policy team who keep talking about the need for the United States to talk to Iran. No one should be surprised that Ahmadinejad sent a personal letter to Obama right after the election congratulating him on his victory, becoming the first Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to extend such a gesture. Most Iranians badly want to end their isolation from the United States and the world at large. No doubt, whoever can claim credit for an end to 30 years of hostility with the United States will be the country’s hero. The risk of bolstering Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy is far more serious than the president-elect and his advisors seem to realize.
Abdo reminds us that this would not be the first time American enthusiasm bolstered extremists in Iran:
This behavior reflects a pattern in Iran, a country obsessed with its relationship with the United States. Each time an end to Iran’s estrangement with the United States appears to be in sight, various competing political factions try to ensure that it happens on their watch. Back in March 2000, when Mohammad Khatami was president, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came close to apologizing to Iran for the United States’ involvement in Iran’s 1953 CIA-backed coup. “[I]t is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs,” Albright said.
Instead of celebrating the historic gesture, Khatami’s rivals condemned the United States for not going far enough in extending a direct apology. I was living in Iran at that time and was able to witness up close the great fear among conservatives that Khatami and his reform movement would gain all the praise and harvest all the political capital for an improvement in relations with the United States.
Abdo’s advice: talk, but not before the Iranian June election. It is a reasonable notion, but it’s based on an incomplete accounting of the challenges at hand. Buying time to build weapons is the very thing Iranian extremists have in mind.