Thinking about Iran policy these days can make you dizzy, so let's try a simple analogy: The neighborhood troublemaker has driven his car off the road and is stuck in a ditch. He is gunning his engine but just spinning his wheels. What should we do?
Personally, I would wait for the dust to settle. I would want that cocky driver to ask for help before throwing him a rescue line. If he needs a tow, he should offer an attractive deal -- starting with a promise that he will stop terrorizing the neighborhood.
There's noise from inside the stranded car, too, suggesting a quarrel: Maybe someone else -- a less reckless driver -- will take the wheel. Maybe the cocky driver's friends will abandon him. It's hard to predict what will happen, so the police should be on call, just in case.
What I'm arguing for is an Iran policy of "creative opportunism." We should take advantage of the fact that our biggest adversary in the Middle East has just had a political crackup. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's vote-rigging putsch has backfired. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's attempt to squelch protest has only revealed his weakness. In the post-election turmoil, even Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have been squabbling.
If this crisis of legitimacy encourages Iranian leaders to start serious negotiations on curbing their nuclear program, fine. Ahlan wa sahlan, as the Arabs say: You are most welcome and make us an offer, please. But if, as is more likely, the Iranians are too preoccupied for serious bargaining, then we should watch and wait -- and, where possible, take advantage.
How can the United States use this moment of opportunity? Well, let's start with Iran's joy-riding passengers, Syria and Hamas. Neither has any natural, abiding affinity with Tehran. Syria is a secular Arab regime whose alliance with the Shiite clerics is a matter of mutual convenience. Similarly, Hamas's leaders are fundamentalist Sunnis who, as a matter of doctrine, regard the Iranian mullahs as apostates.
Syria and Hamas certainly have profited from Iran's largesse. But Tehran's reliability as a patron is now open to question, and its friends may want to hedge their bets. It's an ideal time for the United States to explore alternatives -- through a broad diplomatic opening with Syria and secret contacts (using Saudi, Egyptian and Syrian channels) with Hamas. Even Hezbollah may be ripe for quiet contact after its setback in Lebanon's June election. We are at one of those hinge moments, such as after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when bold diplomacy can pay big dividends.
What other opportunities might the West seize? Surely, the best way to weaken Tehran's hard-liners would be a breakthrough on a Palestinian state, depriving them of their ideological trump card. (Conversely, the quickest way to bolster Ahmadinejad & Co. would be an Israeli attack that would reunite Iran.) And there's the oil card: If the Saudis would agree to increase production and push down prices, Iran would face an economic squeeze that might force political change. Our allies should be creative opportunists, too.
President Obama has said that if Iran is serious about negotiations, it should respond by the end of September to his overtures for talks. That's fine, but he shouldn't go further than that or let the Iranians stall with more non-answers to the proposal delivered months ago by the European Union's chief diplomat, Javier Solana. If the Iranians want talks, let them chase the West this time. If not, Obama should push for tougher sanctions that will deepen Iran's crisis.
There's a lot of talk these days about ticking clocks. But the truth is that, for a change, time is working against the Iranian regime. Every day, Iran's internal political contradictions become more acute.
Ayatollah Khamenei's attempts to put the pieces back together haven't succeeded. Jostling for influence in the Iranian cockpit are Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister and opposition leader; Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and would-be unifier; Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker; Mohsen Rezai, the former head of the Revolutionary Guard; and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the charismatic mayor of Tehran. All have signaled unhappiness with Ahmadinejad and the post-election crackdown.
Iran remains in tumultuous transition -- to what, we can't yet say. Meddling on behalf of the opposition would be a mistake, but it would be a worse error, surely, to throw the Iranian regime a lifeline before it has agreed to behave more responsibly. For the creative opportunist, it is a golden moment.