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Dear Mr. President...

A few months ago, it became possible to hear members and supporters of your administration going around Washington and saying that the question of a nuclear-armed Iran “would not be left to the next administration.” As a line of the day, this had the advantage of sounding both determined and slightly mysterious, as if to commit both to everything and to nothing in particular. That slight advantage has now, if you will permit me to say so, fallen victim to diminishing returns. The absurdly politicized finding of the National Intelligence Estimate—to the effect that Iran has actually halted rather than merely paused its weapons-acquisition program—has put the United States in a position where it is difficult even to continue pressing for sanctions, let alone to consider disabling the centrifuge and heavy-water sites at Natanz, Arak, and elsewhere.

Over the course of the next year, you will have to decide whether this question will indeed be left to become a problem for the succeeding administration. As matters now stand—most recently with the marginally relevant decision to have Iran’s Revolutionary Guard declared a terrorist organization—the United States is in the not-unfamiliar position of appearing to be more bellicose than it actually is. The picture is complicated by the fact that, unlike Iraq in the past or North Korea today, Iran can boast quite an impressive “civil society” movement, which would like both to replace the current ramshackle theocracy and to adopt better and closer relations with the United States. Yet currently, and rather depressingly, the spokesmen of this movement prefer to avoid identifying too closely with Washington.

In other words, Iran is running on two timetables. The first one—the gradual but definite emergence of a democratization trend among the young and the middle class—is something that we can gauge but not determine. The second one—the process by which a messianic regime lays hold of the means to manufacture apocalyptic weaponry—could move rather faster and is partly designed in any case to insulate the mullahs from regime change.

Is it possible that these two apparently discrepant elements can be brought into a more, shall we say, synergistic relationship, and that the United States can regain the initiative that has (yet again!) been lost to it by the actions of its own intelligence bureaucracy? The answer is yes.

Consider our advantages. To begin with, all visitors to Tehran report an extraordinary level of sympathy with the United States among the general population. The availability of satellite-dish and cell phone-born information (which the regime unsuccessfully attempts to repress) fuels much of this. Perhaps even more of it is the result of the large and talented Iranian diaspora in the United States, as well as Canada and Europe. On my own visit to the country, I was astonished by the sheer number of people who had relatives overseas, and who wished they could join them. Most especially among the young, pro-American cultural and musical “statements” are as common as they were in Eastern Europe before 1989. Is it not significant that, in recent frame-up trials against local dissidents, the clumsy and stupid regime has made the charge of fomenting “velvet revolution?”

Second, we have removed from power the two most hated enemies, not of the Iranian mullahs alone, but of the Iranian people. It is true that many Iranians feel nervous about having American forces on their Afghan and Iraqi frontiers, but it is equally true that our ability to demolish the Taliban and the Saddam Hussein tyrannies has greatly impressed many Iranians. Though evidence exists to support the idea that Iran has invested in the destabilization of the American projects in both neighboring countries, evidence also exists that this investment is somewhat half-hearted, and that Iran is aware of the gruesome alternative of a recrudescence of Taliban or Baathist influence.

Third, Iranians are acutely aware of the backwardness of their country and society when compared with other neighbors, most notably Turkey, which with few natural resources has modernized itself into a candidate-member of the European Union. In contrast, Iran may be floating on a lake of oil, but still conducts much the same backward rug-and-pistachio economy that it was operating when the mullahs seized power almost thirty years ago. I mention the Turkish comparison for another reason: many Iranians are actually Azeri or Turkic and feel, as well as a resentment against Persian chauvinism, a kinship to a society more advanced and more secular than their own.

Finally, changing my gear and tone a little, I want to mention another kind of advantage altogether. Iran is scheduled to suffer from a devastating earthquake in the very near future. Its capital, Tehran, is built on a cobweb of fault-lines: a predicament not improved by the astonishing amount of illegal and uninspected construction that takes place, thanks to corruption and incompetence, within its perimeter. After the catastrophic earthquake in the city of Bam in 2003, some Iranian bureaucrats mooted that the capital, or at least some of the more crucial ministries, be moved to Esfahan. This is the city, I might remind you, where we still suspect that covert underground nuclear facilities have been built. And what will be their fate in the event of an earthquake? I want to underline what might be called a seismic imperative. A serious earthquake in Iran could wreak untold damage not just on the Iranian people but on their neighbors, and the clerical regime is doing nothing to prepare for this eventuality or to protect against it. Instead, a large share of the budget is being spent on a grandiose nuclear program, the benefits of which (were its intentions to be certifiably peaceful) the United States could provide to Iran without any noticeable strain.

In the aftermath of the Bam earthquake, American search-and-rescue teams performed prodigies of valor and skill and became so popular locally that the news of their achievements had to be hushed up by the regime’s less-than-perfect censorship. Japan is the only other country in the world that has anything like America’s national experience in “proofing” cities against earthquakes, or in taking action after such events to repair the situation and to succor the survivors.

Consider, then, the “public diplomacy” impact of a serious public offer to Iran, made through international media and from the podium (so often usurped by the clownish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) of the United Nations. The United States could propose the following: A commitment to help Iran to insure its centers of population and its key installations against an earthquake. Along with the provision of expertise and advice would come a request for inspections of key facilities, especially those which might, if ruptured, pose a Chernobyl-type threat to neighboring countries. The latter would include, at a minimum, the Natanz and Arak sites and the other places of Iran’s nuclear program.

At one stroke, this would make a strong appeal, on a matter of urgent material interest, to the general Iranian public. It would point a contrast between our priorities and those of the regime. And it would position us, before the fact, for something not unlike the well-improvised post-tsunami operation mounted by the U.S. Navy in Indonesia.

In the same speech it ought to be said that the United States and its allies, committed as they are to assisting Iran to acquire a peaceful nuclear energy capability, and alarmed as they are by signs of a deceptive strategy in this regard, would like to be sure that our negotiating partners truly represent the Iranian people. At present, we have no such guarantee. We should never cease to emphasize the fact that Iranian “elections” are pre-arranged and pre-vetted, and that the Guardian Council’s dogma of velayat i-faqi (a teaching that has only a very slight foundation in Shia tradition) considers every Iranian citizen to be in effect a ward of the theocratic state. In this respect, too, we may have more allies than we realize. The Sistani school in next-door Iraq—we have a tendency to forget that Grand Ayatollah Sistani is an Iranian—does not accept the Khomeinite dogma and it is possible to look forward to a time when more debate on this point will take place among the faithful themselves. In such a case, the United States could yet again have placed itself on the right side of an ongoing argument. It could even be that our intervention in Iraq, and the consequent liberation of the Shia, will prove to have had long-term positive consequences.

I have heard it argued that any carrot-shaped initiatives directed at Tehran constitute a reward for the regime’s bad behavior and might even encourage the harder-line mullahs to believe that their intransigence had paid off. But I don’t think that this can be said for the proposals outlined above, which are directed at the Iranian people and which in effect offer them considerable benefits in exchange for something that the majority of them appear to desire in any case, namely political and social transparency. The impact on international opinion might not be negligible: the United States is making a very considerate and statesmanlike offer that is in the interest of the region as a whole.

It’s eternally fashionable in Washington (and elsewhere) to contrast “diplomatic” initiatives with “saber-rattling” ones. What this naïve dichotomy overlooks is the plain fact that without the known quantity of the American saber, few if any diplomatic movements would be possible, either. For all the valuable work done by the European Union in direct negotiations with Tehran, it must be doubted that any progress at all would have been made without the threat of a more—shall we say robust?—policy on the part of the United States.

It is not just politically important to make it clear that such an option will not be exerted until all other avenues have been explored. It is also morally important. Our past relations with Iran have not always been as nobly conducted as they might have been. Not only was there the 1953 coup and the fraught interlude of Pahlavi rule, but also the unhappy period when American weaponry sustained Saddam Hussein in a war that took the lives of perhaps 750,000 Iranians. If the moment comes when you, Mr. President, feel that a “Nixon-in-China” initiative is required, and an offer of direct dealing with Iran and the Iranians is warranted, it will be important for you to find some telling words in which to phrase an acknowledgment of those facts.

On my visit to Tehran, I naturally made a stop at our former embassy, now a grotesque museum of inept theocratic propaganda. Not only are most Iranians offended by this vulgarity but, as I discovered, even the mullahs keep the site and the grounds intact because they think they may have to return them some day. The current period of suspended animation cannot be protracted indefinitely. Either the regime must change or, at a minimum, its policies must be substantially modified. Currently, in Syria and Lebanon and Iraq (and in Gaza) the mullahs sometimes but not always give the impression that they think they can fight and win a long confrontation with the United States. In our own current election, every serious candidate has stated that the outcome of a nuclear theocracy is simply not acceptable. It will indeed need to be decided, and in the lifetime of your administration, whether we aim merely to negate that intolerable ambition or whether we have the ingenuity to make this the occasion for a wider and deeper engagement, consummating the progress made in Iraq and Afghanistan and confirming it in the keystone society that lies between them.

Christopher Hitchens was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of the bestselling book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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