As the Obama administration crafts its strategy, it should not repeat the mistakes of the past. The Bush approach lacked cohesion and coordination. A month after President Bush declared Iran part of the "axis of evil," the deputy secretary of State said it was a democracy. And although the White House talked tough--much to the ire of the pro-engagement crowd--the Bush administration engaged the Islamic Republic more than any administration since Jimmy Carter's, thereby losing the trust of those seeking more sticks than carrots. Regardless of his ultimate policy, President Obama must realize that the gap between rhetoric and reality is inversely proportional to credibility.
So what should Obama do? The question is not whether to engage or not, but how to integrate diplomacy into a comprehensive strategy. Every strategy should have diplomatic, informational, economic and even military components. Too often, Washington sequences components when a comprehensive approach bolsters diplomacy's effectiveness. Washington can no longer play checkers as Tehran plays chess.
Credibility matters. Adversaries test red lines wherever they are drawn. Obama should not, like his predecessors, draw his in pencil.
Moral clarity is also important. The president can support broad concepts such as liberty and freedom without endorsing any particular group. Obama should differentiate between the reformists and ordinary Iranians. As journalist Laura Secor wrote in 2005: "Iran's reform movement, for all its courage, was the loyal opposition in a fascist state. It sought not to dismantle or secularize the Islamic Republic ... but to improve it." Those Iranians most adamantly opposed to U.S. assistance to civil society were those most loyal to the concept of the Islamic Republic. This does not mean that Washington should meddle or support any opposition group. Twenty years ago, a lone Chinese student stopped a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The goal of our intelligence agencies should not be to identify that student ahead of time, but rather to create a template upon which ordinary people can act.
Most of the budget for Bush's maligned Iran democracy promotion went to Voice of America and Persian-language Radio Farda broadcasts. Now that the Islamic Republic has clamped down on internal media, the value of this information platform is clear. Raise Radio Farda's budget 10-fold.
Lastly, the chief problem in the Islamic Republic is that the government believes itself accountable more to God than to its constituents. While workers go without wages for months on end, the Iranian leadership invests billions in nuclear and ballistic missile programs or exporting the revolution. If the Islamic Republic had to answer to its overwhelmingly moderate citizenry, Tehran's behavior would temper considerably. Bush missed a Gdansk moment when Iranian bus drivers, under the leadership of Mansour Osanlou, formed the Islamic Republic's first independent trade union. Sugar cane workers in Khuzistan followed suit. Both forced the government to make concessions and be accountable to Iranians. The development of independent trade unions in Iran is a trend Obama should encourage.
Obama may want to engage Iran's current leadership, but he should throw them no lifeline. It is the Iranian people who matter most.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.