The Iraq Study Group, prominent U.S. senators and realist diplomats all want America to hold formal talks with the government of Iran. They think Tehran might help the United States disengage from Iraq and the general Middle East mess with dignity. That would be a grave error for a variety of reasons -- the most important being that Iran is far shakier than we are.
The world of publicity-hungry Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not expanding, but shrinking. Despite his supposedly populist credentials, his support at home and abroad will only further weaken as long as the United States continues its steady, calm and quiet pressure on him.
In Iran's city council elections last week, moderate conservative and reformist candidates defeated Ahmadinejad's vehemently anti-American slate of allies. At a recent public meeting, angry Iranian students -- tired of theocratic lunacy and repression -- shouted down their president.
By supporting terrorists in Iraq and Lebanon, enriching uranium and insanely threatening to destroy a nuclear Israel, Mr. Ahmadinejad is only alienating Iranians, who wonder where their once vast oil revenues went and how they can possibly pay for all these wild adventures.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ahmadinejad has invested little in the source of his wealth -- the oil infrastructure of Iran. Soon, even the country's once-sure oil revenues will start to decline. And that could be sooner than he thinks if the United Nations were to expand its recent economic sanctions in response to Ahmadinejad's flagrant violation of nuclear nonproliferation accords.
So, as Iranians worry that their nation is becoming an international pariah and perhaps heading down the path of bankruptcy in the process, now is not the time for America to give in by offering direct talks with Mr. Ahmadinejad. That propaganda victory would only help him reclaim the legitimacy and stature that he is losing with his own people at home.
Better models to follow instead are our past long-term policies toward Moammar Gadhafi's Libya and the Soviet Union of the 1980s. As long as Libya sponsored terrorism and attacked Westerners, we kept clear, and boycotted the regime. Only in 2003, when the Libyans unilaterally gave up a substantial program of weapons of mass destruction, agreed not to violate nuclear proliferation accords and renounced terrorism did we agree to normalize relations.
In other words, "talking with" or "engaging" Libya did not bring about this remarkable change in attitude within the Libyan government. In contrast, tough American principles, economic coercion, ostracism and patience finally did.
The United States always maintained open channels with the Soviet Union. After all -- unlike with Iran or Libya -- we had little choice when thousands of nukes were pointed at us and Red Army troops were massed on the West German border.
But Ronald Reagan nevertheless embraced a radical shift in U.S. policy by actively appealing to Russian dissidents. He used the bully pulpit to expose the barbarity of the "evil empire" in the world court of ideas. All the while, Reagan further enhanced America's military advantage over the Soviets to speed the regime's collapse.
After the fall, courageous Russian dissidents from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Natan Sharansky did not applaud Jimmy Carter, who had smugly pronounced the end of his own "inordinate fear" of such a murderous ideology. Instead, they preferred Reagan, who had challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev "to tear down" the Berlin Wall. America came out ahead when we were on the side of people yearning for change rather than coddling the regime trying to stop it.
The larger Middle East that surrounds Iran is in the throes of a messy, violent three-stage transition: from dictatorship to radicalism and chaos to constitutional government. Thugs and terrorists like Mr. Ahmadinejad ("We did not have a revolution in order to have democracy") want it to stop and return to the old world before September 11.
In similar fashion, there are also terrible aftershocks in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the old authoritarian rules of Saddam and the Taliban are over. So perhaps is the Syrian colonization of Lebanon. Yasser Arafat is gone in the Middle East, and his successors are fighting each other more than they are Israel.
In all this chaos -- which will take years to settle -- the United States needs to stick to its principles. Neither immediate military intervention nor dialogue with Iran is the answer. Instead, we must just keep up the pressure on the trash-talking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is far weaker than he lets on.
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