During Thursday's "Arab-Israeli Conflict" class, Professor Sheldon asked us how we thought the dialogue between Ahmadinejad and Obama would go at their meeting on October 1st. A few ventured various guesses, usually along the lines of "Here is what we want you to stop doing and here's why" or "We respect you and the great nation of Iran. We have these complaints, we're sure you have complaints as well, how can we find common ground?" The first is essentially the Bush administration's stance and the second is the Carter administration's stance, albeit with a bit more teeth.
Professor Sheldon's criticism of the Obama administration's stance toward Iran was that it was Carter redux. However, the Obama administration has taken a harder line toward Iran in recent weeks, particularly with the exposure of a secret Iranian nuclear installation. In fact, they are now demanding that Iran open the facility to inspectors within weeks or face tougher sanctions.
While previous pressure on the Iranian government may have proved fruitless, circumstances have changed drastically in recent months in light of the last Iranian election and subsequent demonstrations. The Iranian regime lost any vestiges of legitimacy it may have had domestically and is arguably at its weakest since its inception in 1979. Many demonstrators were discontent with the focus on foreign affairs over economic and domestic concerns. Or in other words, why should Iranians be funding Hamas and Hezbollah when there are not enough jobs in Tehran?
The Iranian system is designed to give the semblance of representation where none exists. His bluster aside, Ahmadinejad is nothing more than a figurehead. Real policy is made by the Supreme Leader, Khameini, and the Guardian Council, a body of twelve clerics which controls the laws and potential candidates for president and parliament.
But as Khameini and Ahmadinejad have discovered, an educated, affluent middle class demands a government sensitive to its needs and will use whatever semblance of representation it has to force such sensitivity. Iranians want more control over their national politics; they want true representation, a desire that has been only inflamed by oppression. And once such a movement starts, it is nearly impossible to quash without further underscoring the illegitimacy of the repressive regime.
So Obama is faced with an Iranian government that is both strong and weak at the same time; strong because its principle regional rival, Iraq, no longer is a threat, and weak because it is illegitimate in the eyes of its own people. Obama cannot take the Carter approach lest he give cover to a repressive regime and show weakness. Oddly enough, circumstances suggest that it may be most fruitful to pursue the Bush approach in hopes of isolating and destabilizing the Iranian government enough to set the stage for a revolution.