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Mr. President, Talk To Iran

When the new U.S. president takes office in January, one of the key issues he'll find on his desk is the problem of Iran. One of the largest and most powerful countries in the Middle East and a leading energy producer, Iran has also presented a defiant challenge to Washington, particularly in its insistence on pursuing an advanced nuclear program.

Although the current U.S. administration has refused to remove the "military option" from the table, it seems clear that a war is in no one's interests -- not the U.S. taxpayers,' not the overtaxed U.S. military's, not those of Iran's neighbors, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are some Iranians inside the country and abroad who are sick of the theocracy in Tehran and dream that if the United States attacks today, the country will be a democracy tomorrow. But the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan reveal a different truth altogether. Democracy takes time. Military action will not resolve Iran's domestic issues.

And many experts argue that it will not resolve the standoff over the nuclear program either. Although a strike would set the program back, it would not end it. It would spread radioactive contamination and produce civilian casualties, but achieve little else. Tehran would certainly respond by leaving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and ending all cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It would build new facilities without any international oversight or control.

Equally importantly, it would enflame anti-Western and anti-American sentiment across the country and rally many in Iran to support the government. After all, a significant portion of the Iranian people already support the nuclear program. Further, an attack would undermine the efforts of moderate and liberal politicians in Iran to push an agenda of international engagement and democratic reform.

Speak To Iran, All Of It

But this does not mean there is not a way forward. My advice to the new president is as follows:

First, end the saber-rattling and initiate direct talks with the Iranian authorities. In addition to formal talks, identify and seek contacts with people within the country who do not hold posts in the government, but nonetheless wield great authority. Use all means to reach them and persuade them of your willingness to hammer out a mutually acceptable compromise.

Second, you should realize that the majority of Iranian people bear no ill-will toward the United States, the West, or even Israel. An Iranian government that truly reflected the views of the majority of the population would seek to improve relations. A careful and nuanced approach to democracy promotion is needed in Iran, one that does not expect the immediate result of "regime change" but the long-term result of open civil society and healthy grassroots institutions. The path to achieving this is not simple, and direct financial support to activists is not always the best way to advance their efforts. In fact, under the current system, such aid can bring them no end of grief. In addition, you must avoid the pitfall of supporting groups that pretend to espouse liberal values but in fact are bent on establishing their own dictatorship in Iran.

Third, use economic and political sanctions and incentives to promote and encourage democratic change. Europe will support such efforts, and Tehran might well respond to offers of real engagement. Any other course would inevitably mean the United States would continue to stand alone and stymied.

Finally, I would stress the importance of boosting access to information and informed debate in Iran. The dictatorship there thrives because of its stranglehold on information and its ability to control and shape impressions and opinions. International broadcasting is one tool for expanding the terms of debate within Iran and arming moderates with the facts they need to change the system.

Mr. President, Iran is more open to you than you might think. And your ability to improve the situation in the region and the situation within Iran itself is greater than you might think.

Mohammad Reza Kazemi is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Persian-language Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL