President Barack 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. The president 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 are down by 40 percent compared with a year ago.
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. There's no room to store more. Iran's currency, the rial, is down by half. 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 halt a nuclear weapons program that egregiously violates international law. And last week, Iran's Majlis speaker, Ali Larijani, 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 favor abandoning the nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions. Authorities quickly pulled those results down from the Web but screenshots prove they were 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, regretfully, that continued intransigence by Iranian rulers guarantees that economic pressure will increase. He should announce his support for legislation introduced by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) that would blacklist the entire Iranian energy sector as a "zone of primary proliferation concern."
The president should say he looks forward to the day when the great Iranian people has leaders concerned with the welfare of ordinary Iranians. He would recall 2009, when brave Iranians, protesting fraudulent elections, took to streets, shouting "Death to the dictators!" and asking: "Obama, are you with us or against us?" He would acknowledge that he wishes he had answered without equivocation.
Finally, he would reaffirm that it is "unacceptable" for Iran's current rulers to have nuclear weapons He would reiterate what he said in accepting his Nobel Peace Prize: "(T)hat 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, they will bear the responsibility.
Such a speech should be followed by other measures 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 it seized 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.
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The real Iranian problem is not nuclear weapons, any more than the real problem in Europe in the 1940s was Zyclon B. The real problem is the Jihadist regime that embraces a doctrine of Islamic supremacy, bellicosity and oppression.
As sanctions bite more deeply, and Iran's rulers talk threateningly of the West's "disappearance" while illegally assembling weapons that could facilitate achieving that goal, the least an American president should do is explain to the Iranian people the crisis their rulers are fomenting.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.