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

The president should say he looks forward to the day when the great Iranian people have leaders worthy of them — leaders concerned with the welfare of ordinary Iranians. What Iran has now: rulers who oppress religious and ethnic minorities; hang homosexuals; rape virgins in prison before executing them (to ensure their punishment in the afterlife); facilitate terrorists abroad (al-Qaeda included); help perpetuate a brutal dictator in Syria; and incite genocide against Israelis.

Obama would recall 2009, when brave Iranians, protesting fraudulent elections, took to the streets, shouting “Death to the dictators!” and asking: “Obama, are you with us or against us?” He would be candid enough to acknowledge that he wishes he had answered without hesitation or equivocation.

Finally, he should reaffirm that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran’s current rulers to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” He should reiterate, too, what he said when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize: “That force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.” Should Iran’s rulers leave Americans no alternative, Obama would emphasize, lives will be put in jeopardy — and Iran’s rulers will bear the responsibility.

Such a speech should be followed by other measures — overt and covert — in support of Iranians willing to take the risks necessary to replace a regime that has failed domestically; a regime that has been at war with the U.S. since the seizure of our embassy in 1979; a regime that four years later instructed Hezbollah to suicide-bomb the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; a regime that has facilitated the killings of hundreds of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan; a regime that plotted to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C., just last year.

The real Iranian problem, as my colleague Michael Ledeen has pointed out repeatedly over the years, is not nuclear weapons — any more than the real problem in Europe in the 1940s was Zyklon B. The real problem is the jihadist regime, which, not alone in the Muslim world, embraces a doctrine of Islamic supremacy and bellicosity. “We can’t get out of this war,” Ledeen has said. “We can win, or lose, but our enemies won’t let us escape the battlefield. We’re the Great Satan, after all, the main enemy.”

As sanctions bite more deeply, and Iran’s rulers talk threateningly of the West’s “disappearance” while illegally assembling weapons that could facilitate the achievement of that goal, the least that an American president should do is explain to the Iranian people the crisis their rulers are fomenting. Doing so would also demonstrate that Obama is seriously engaged in the most consequential international-security crisis of this century, even during an election year.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.