May 11, 2006

May 11, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Engaging Iranians

It may well be that there's nothing new in this week's 17-page letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush. That's the view of the White House and of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called it "broadly philosophical in character" and absent any useful details about Iran's controversial nuclear program. Chances are that Mr. Bush has better uses for his time than perusing page upon page of philosophical musings from the clearly unhinged Iranian leader, even if it is the first such missive in 27 years.

And yet, the existence of the letter itself seems to suggest that the Iranian leadership is getting nervous as the United States, France and Britain push for a vote this week in the U.N. Security Council. The fact that the United States has held to a consistent line against the Iranian program, and persisted in keeping all options on the table - including the military - may well have a lot to do with Mr. Ahmadinejad's new-found desire to communicate.

In order for diplomacy to work, it has to be accompanied by credible incentives and credible consequences. The problem with the European approach to Iran is that when it comes to consequences, Europeans - superb negotiators that they are - tend to be toothless. That's why the initiative of the EU 3 has not actually achieved any progress to date, but only encouraged Iranian defiance.

For the United States, though, our strategy should go beyond talking tough to the Iranian government, lest we talk ourselves into a military confrontation while there are still other venues for action that could be explored.

We should consider, for instance, the fact that the Iranian population remains one of the most pro-American in the Middle East. With the huge cohort of the 30-and-under generation, restive against the strictures of the reigning mullahs, there's much to work with for American public diplomacy if only we can find the right formula. It is also fairly clear that we will lose that strategic advantage the moment American bombs start hitting Iranian targets.

But do all Iranians for reasons of national pride want a nuclear bomb? No one has ever attempted to reach the Iranian public to ask whether they are aware of the price they will be paying for pursuing the path their government has embarked on. Nor have they been told how useless the bomb will eventually be as a Middle East arms race will certainly be the consequence, and as any nuclear attack on Israel will be followed by retaliation so massive from the United States that there would likely be very little of Iran itself left.

It should also be recalled that Mr. Ahmadinejad won the presidency in a run-off election that was exceedingly poorly attended, which means that his actual share of support among the Iranian public is well below 40 percent. He was a stealth candidate who snuck in under the wire to everybody's great surprise. Only a confrontation with the United States and other major powers can make him a popular figure.

It is surely therefore worth trying through our public diplomacy efforts and through the agency of other third trusted parties to reach into the Iranian public for greater understanding. For instance, the Middle East is one of the regions of the world with the highest proportion of Internet users, with one computer per 18 persons, compared to a worldwide average of 78 persons per computer. Here we have a fertile field in which to mine innovative approaches to Iranians. Despite efforts by Iran to control Internet access, the phenomenon of blogging has exploded exponentially in recent years. This is one area where U.S. public diplomacy may have promising contributions to make.

The problem on our side is that we do not have in this area a particularly well thought out governmentwide strategy as to how to change public opinion in the Middle East. This is one of the points made in the newly released report by the General Accounting Office, "State Department Efforts to Engage Muslim Audiences Lack Certain Communication Elements and Face Significant Challenges." At the very least, a strategy that focused on reaching the Iranian public should be concomitant with our efforts at diplomacy through the United Nations, possible sanctions and contingency military planning.

Who knows? They may even listen if we get the message right.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times