"Unacceptable." This was the adjective that John McCain and Barack Obama used to describe the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran in their first televised debate. Beyond that, the two men offered diametrically opposed options for dealing with what both acknowledge as the No. 1 foreign policy challenge facing the United States. Leaving aside all spin, McCain's ultimate--though never pronounced--goal is regime-change in Tehran, while Obama hopes for some form of accommodation with the Khomeinist leadership. McCain regards the Islamic Republic as an enemy rather than a mere adversary, rival or competitor. The Khomeinist regime has publicly announced its desire to wipe Israel off the map, overthrow pro-American regimes in the Middle East, create an alliance of anti-U.S. forces that would include the leftist regimes of Latin America, and ultimately bring about the destruction of the "Great Satan" as a global superpower. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has just hosted an international conference on "The World Without America." Addressing a Ramadan party in New York recently, he claimed that "the post-American era" had already begun. Obama, on the other hand, believes that the Islamic Republic may have legitimate grievances that should be addressed. This was the analysis made by the Carter administration in 1979 as it struggled with the Tehran hostage crisis. Later, it was adopted by the Clinton administration and led to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologizing for unspecified wrongs that the U.S. had supposedly done to Iran. The presence of Joseph Biden as Obama's vice-presidential running mate has strengthened the Democratic ticket's conciliatory position on Iran. Biden was an early supporter of the Khomeinist revolution and has maintained close ties with pro-Tehran lobbies in the U.S. for more than 25 years. What Obama hopes for is a change of behavior by the Islamic Republic on some specific topics, notably the nuclear project, the Middle East peace process and sponsoring international terrorism. McCain has made it clear that he would not initiate direct talks with Tehran until the Islamic Republic has changed its behavior on those issues. Obama, on the other hand, believes that only by direct talks could he hope for a change of behavior by Tehran. The American debate is followed closely inside Iran where a struggle for power is taking shape within the Khomeinist regime while anti-regime tension is rising in the broader society. Ahmadinejad and his advisers believe they have already won and point to Obama's conciliatory position as evidence. They also think that Obama will win. "Very soon," Ahmadinejad told the Ramadan meeting in New York, "we shall witness monumental changes in the world. America has suffered repeated defeats in all domains and is reaching the end of the road." The Islamic Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran, Hussein Qashqawi, has praised Obama for "offering new slogans such as change." Muhammad-Ali Far-Danesh, an Ahmadinejad adviser, has praised Obama as someone who understands that "America is falling apart from within." He has also paid tribute to Biden as "a respectable and healthy man who understands realities." By contrast, McCain is branded by the pro-Ahmadinejad media as "an old warmonger" who does not understand that "world conditions are better suited than ever for the return of the Hidden Imam" and the final triumph of Islam. Pro-reform groups in Tehran regard Obama's position as an endorsement of Ahmadinejad's claim that the Western powers in general and the U.S. in particular are "sunset" powers, while Islam represents the "sunrise" power of the future. At a more practical level, Obama's position could prove counter-productive for a number of reasons.By seeking unconditional talks, Obama circumvents four mandatory resolutions unanimously passed by the United Nations' Security Council imposing sanctions on Iran. All four resolutions demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program as a precondition for negotiations. In seeking direct negotiations without preconditions, Obama would be violating those resolutions. He would also destroy the coalition made of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and China to deal with the nuclear threat. Obama's position would also send wrong signals to regional allies who have tried to tighten the economic and diplomatic screws against Iran. The prospect of Washington making a deal with Tehran is certain to send shivers down many spines, from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent. More importantly, perhaps, pro-reform groups in Iran already regard Obama's position as a stab in their back. By seeking unconditional talks with Tehran, Obama is acknowledging moral equivalence between the U.S. and the Khomeinist regime. At the same time, Obama legitimizes Ahmadinejad, who faces re-election in June 2009. Strengthened by what he presents as an American retreat, Ahmadinejad would portray his critics as cowards or traitors--this at a time when more and more voices are raised inside Iran urging him to stop his murderous rants and comply with the U.N. resolutions. The latest calls in that direction have come from Ayatollah Abdallah Nuri, the leading pro-reform figure likely to challenge Ahmadinejad in next year's presidential election. It has also been endorsed by Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace laureate, and Mostafa Tajzadeh, a leader of the Pro-Reform Movement in Tehran. Statements by independent trade unions have also called on Ahmadinejad to meet the preconditions set by the U.N. in order to stop further economic hardship in Iran. Even some senior figures within the establishment, such as Hassan Rouhani, the man who broke with Ahmadinejad over the nuclear issue, have called for compliance with the U.N. resolutions. That Obama may be ignoring U.N. preconditions is a big disappointment to these, and other, Iranians who support change. Amir Taheri is the author of 10 books on Iran, the Middle East and Islam. His new book The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution will be published by Encounter Books in November.
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