The Obama administration expects Iran's hard-line leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his protege, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to weather the protests that followed last month's apparently rigged election. And no matter how the political turmoil comes out, President Barack Obama expects Iran's nuclear engineers to continue enriching uranium, moving the country steadily closer to building a nuclear weapon.
Those sobering forecasts are topmost in the minds of Obama and his advisers as they try to crack a diplomatic dilemma: Can the United States still entice Khamenei into negotiations to bring Iran's nuclear project under international control — but, at the same time, support the growing opposition to the ayatollah's rule?
That's why Obama's public statements about Iran have been so cautious. Last week, 11 days after Ahmadinejad claimed victory, Obama finally issued a full-throated condemnation of the regime's violent repression of its opponents — but he still refrained from calling Ahmadinejad's re-election illegitimate, as critics had urged.
The immediate reason for Obama's diffidence, of course, was a desire to avoid harming the Iranian democrats by making them look like tools of the Great Satan.
But the bigger factor is that the most concrete U.S. interest in Iran isn't about shaping the outcome of the street protests (a goal the United States has little ability to pursue), it's halting the Islamic Republic's relentless progress toward nuclear weapons capability.
It was telling that when Obama was asked last week whether there was any level of repression in Iran that would prompt him to stop seeking negotiations, he talked instead about the reasons both sides should talk.
"The United States has core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn't possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders," he said. "We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage and become a part of international norms. It is up to them to make a decision."
Obama and his aides insist, of course, that they are not indifferent to the cause of democracy. The problem, they say, is that events in Iran are operating on two different clocks — one fast, one slow. "The nuclear clock is ticking," one Obama aide warned. Some analysts believe Iran will enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon within two years. The "democracy clock," meanwhile, may take much longer. The administration's Iran-watchers believe that nation is in for a long period of turmoil — but they see no real prospect of a quick, benign revolution in the short term.
And that leaves the administration with a challenge: How to pursue negotiations with Iran without inadvertently lending support to the regime.
So far, Iran's responses to Obama's outstretched hand have been dismissive — fulfilling the forecasts of most Iran-watchers that the regime, under pressure, is likely to retreat to its traditional hard-line stance rather than take any risks on the unknown ground of negotiations.
Last week, in response to Obama's relatively mild criticism, Ahmadinejad demanded an apology and said negotiations would be useless. "If that is your stance, then what is left to talk about?" he asked.
In one sense, if Iran's hard-liners continue to dig in their heels, Obama's diplomatic challenge is simpler. The administration's plan all along has been to determine whether Iran was serious about making a deal, and — if not — to quickly seek tougher international sanctions against the regime. Ahmadinejad's truculent reaction had the virtue of clarity.
A more difficult decision will face the administration if Khamenei and Ahmadinejad opt for a more conciliatory policy. What if the hard-liners decide the best way to bolster their popularity is to negotiate with the United States? Most Iran-watchers think that's unlikely. But Khamenei, a more subtle strategist than Ahmadinejad, has said he would embrace negotiations if he thought they were in the Islamic Republic's interest.
Of course, Obama should never mute U.S. condemnation of internal repression in Iran or U.S. support for human rights as a price for nuclear talks — and he will not, aides say.
Indeed, the trick will be maintaining clear moral support for Iran's democrats — plus any other aid that's useful — in the face of Iranian negotiators' inevitable complaints.
But in skillful hands, negotiations need not strengthen a dying regime. Instead, if the mullahs can be talked into abandoning some of the ideological pillars that have sustained their revolution, negotiations could undermine their rule in the long run.
And that's not a new challenge for American diplomacy. Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan sought nuclear arms deals with Soviet leaders even as he denounced the Soviet Union as "an evil empire." Reagan aimed to undermine Soviet communism, but he also negotiated with its leaders — and he succeeded at both.