President Obama tried extending his hand to Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They have made it clear they consider Obama just as "satanic" as previous American leaders. Nor has it helped to hold out the possibility of a "grand bargain," an offer to end Iran's "isolation" and "integrate" Iran into the "international community." For one, Khomeinists don't want to join the circus - they want to run the show. For another, Iran has never been really isolated.
Right now, Iran is doing billions of dollars of business with Europe; it wields enormous power at the U.N.; and its representatives are everywhere - including in the United States where they work out of an "interest section" at Pakistan's embassy in Washington and have a mission - an embassy in all but name -- to the U.N. on Third Avenue in Manhattan. Iranian students continue to be welcomed in the U.S. where they may study nuclear physics and computer sciences - disciplines they can later employ to wage war against us.
The sanctions bills that have passed Congress would target a chink in Iran's armor: its dependence on gasoline imports. Yes, ordinary Iranians will suffer as fuel becomes scarce and more expensive. But President Obama is articulate enough to explain where the blame belongs. He could add that Americans look forward not just to lifting the sanctions but to working with Iranians in a spirit of cooperation - as soon as Iran has leaders interested in such relations.
It would be useful if the President also provided both moral and material support to those Iranians who have been marching in the streets, chanting: "Obama! Are you with us or against us?"
First, of course, the House and Senate bills need to be melded in conference committee. Apologists for Iran's despots - there are many at Washington think tanks and in academia -- will try to water it down. They will be joined, unfortunately, by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which doesn't want the government to interfere with business interests. I agree with that as a principal but make an exception for Iran: Sanctions represent the last, best hope to peacefully prevent such despots as Ahmadinejad and Khamenei from building a nuclear arsenal, a development that would have many ill effects, not least for international commerce.
If Congress does give Obama the tools necessary to impose crippling sanctions, will he use them? Who knows? But here's what we do know: The President has a rare opportunity to bring hope and change on a global scale -- without deploying a soldier or firing a shot. Helping Iranians reform or replace the present regime, scholar Robert Kagan recently wrote, would be an achievement "second only to the collapse of the Soviet Union in its ideological and geopolitical ramifications." Should Obama facilitate the cause of Iranian liberation, "his place in history as a transformational world leader would be secure."
In 1979, Iran's Islamist Revolution was the spark that set off the War Against the West that has raged ever since. The atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 represent the most devastating battle - so far. The advent of a nuclear-armed and jihadist Iran would escalate the conflict. By contrast, an Iranian government more concerned with the welfare of its citizens than with power and conquest, would ease tensions in the Middle East and beyond. If President Obama contributes to that result, he will deserve - and receive -- support from both sides of the aisle.