How to Talk to Iran
The president should reach out to the Iranian people — not their oppressors.

A sidewalk scene in Tehran


Clifford D. May

President Obama has long wanted to engage Iran. In his inaugural address, he said he was willing to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Over and over, Iran’s rulers have demonstrated that they are not willing. He should reach out again — but this time to the Iranian people, not those who oppress them.

Iran’s economy is crumbling. The energy-rich nation today produces only half as much oil as it did before the 1979 revolution. Mismanagement is the main reason. But because of American and European sanctions, exports of the oil the regime does manage to produce — Iran’s only significant product — are down by 40 percent compared with a year ago. That’s costing the regime an estimated $4.5 billion per month.

On July 1, a European oil embargo went into effect. Tens of millions of barrels of unsold Iranian oil are already being stored in tankers offshore. When Iran’s rulers run out of storage space, they will face a choice: discount their oil even more steeply in an attempt to sell to anyone still willing to buy from them, or cut production further.

Iran’s currency, the rial, is now worth about half what it was before sanctions were imposed. Consumer prices have risen by an estimated 40 percent. Unemployment is rising, too, especially among the young.

The American president needs to explain to ordinary Iranians why this is happening to them, why it will get worse, and who is to blame.

He might begin by noting that negotiations between Iran and the West have gone nowhere because Iran’s rulers have been unwilling to compromise and unwilling to halt a nuclear-weapons program that egregiously violates international law. And, adding insult to intransigence, Iran’s Majlis speaker, Ali Larijani, last week issued yet another threat to America, Europe, and Israel: “Today, the time has come for the disappearance of the West and the Zionist regime — which are two dark spots in the present era — from the face of the universe.”

But this, too, happened last week: Iran’s state-television news published an online poll showing 63 percent of Iranians favoring the abandonment of the nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Authorities quickly pulled those results down from the Web, but Golnaz Esfandiari, a Radio Free Europe senior correspondent, had screenshots to prove they had been there. Saba Farzan, a German-Iranian expert on the Islamic Republic, told my colleague Benjamin Weinthal, “For nearly a decade the Iranian regime and its apologists around the globe have created a myth that Iran’s civil society stands behind the regime’s nuclear program. Now, that myth has been fortunately buried once and forever — ironically through a poll the Iranian regime established itself.”

Obama should say, with regret, that Iran’s rulers are guaranteeing that the pressure will increase. He should announce his support for legislation introduced by Representative Ted Deutch (D., Fla.), Representative Robert Dold (R., Ill.), and Senator Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) that would blacklist the entire Iranian energy sector as a “zone of primary proliferation concern.” As suggested by my colleague Mark Dubowitz, he also should designate the Central Bank of Iran as an “entity of primary proliferation concern,” barring international companies from cooperating with it.