NEW YORK – While talking to an Iranian official in Tehran earlier this year, he reminded me of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fondness for comparing the relationship between the United States and Iran to that between a wolf and a lamb. But the official went on to add his own twist, “Nearly 30 years have passed, and we are not that lamb anymore, and maybe the US is not the same wolf it once was.” His point was that Iran no longer feels the deep inequality with the US that it did in the past, and that it may be time to try engagement.
Over the past three decades, five American presidents have struggled to figure out what to do about Iran. All five failed. As US President-elect Barack Obama and his advisers assess their foreign-policy priorities, they will encounter the immediate challenge of addressing Iran’s nuclear program and the country’s growing strategic importance in the Middle East and South Asia.
They will need quickly to face up to the reality that in order to pursue US interests in the region, including stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, the current standoff with Iran cannot continue, and that a greater degree of cooperation is unavoidable. If they do not want to repeat the failures of past administrations, they will be well advised to do what none of Obama’s predecessors have tried.
They should make a strategic decision to engage Iran – without any pre-conditions – in discussions on a broad range of issues of significance to both sides. During his candidacy, Obama said of Iran that, “For us not to be in a conversation with them doesn’t make sense.” Now, he has the opportunity to follow through.