Two failed strategies on Iran leave one obvious solution
But mixed signals have long been Tehran's stock and trade. The foreign ministry almost immediately followed by rejecting a US proposal on nuclear fuel swaps that apparently had not even been formally offered. Despite any new willingness to talk, the Islamic Republic has betrayed no signs of amending the course - nuclear or otherwise - that it has fixed on in recent years.
One of the clearest signs of that course was the recent news that fuel is being loaded into the core of the Bushehr nuclear plant, taking Iran a step closer to a functioning nuclear facility. Meanwhile, evidence of a broader Iranian assertiveness is easy to find: last month, Iran endorsed the idea of a second term in Iraq for the incumbent prime minister Nouri al Maliki, after brokering a deal between Mr al Maliki and the Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. There will be no denying, Tehran seems to be saying, our status as a regional superpower.
How should the West deal with the nuclear issue? Indeed, how should it deal with the wider issues of Iran's apparent intransigence and regional ambition?
So far, the answers to those questions have fallen broadly into two camps. On the one side are those who argue for a "grand bargain" with the Islamic Republic: a wide-ranging agreement that would fundamentally reset relations. On the other is a strange alliance of hardline Washington conservatives and Iranian diaspora opposition groups who agree that only military action will be effective.
Both should concede that they are wrong. In the long years of the Bush presidency, it was easy to believe that a more enlightened US approach - perhaps little more than a change in tone - could affect a profound change in relations. But Barack Obama changed the tone, becoming the first US president to wish the Iranian people a happy Nowruz in their own language, and made an offer of dialogue to no avail.
The hard truth for the grand bargain camp is that Iran in its current incarnation stokes antagonism with the "Great Satan" to shore up its own domestic authoritarian rule. It has no intention of allowing the US to appear reasonable.
As for the hawks who argue for military intervention, their ideological fervour outruns common sense. Strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities would delay the programme at best, and could tip the region into catastrophe.
So let us be clear on the need for a new approach. If the West cannot reach broad agreement with the Islamic Republic in its current form, and cannot force its hand by military action, then what is left is the need to help to cultivate a new Iran, a country that could be trusted with nuclear technology and that would enter into a full dialogue. Crucially, just such an Iran exists - in the will of the Iranian people.
What does this mean in practice? First, it means that economic sanctions, at present the West's tactical instrument of choice, are counterproductive. In July, the US tightened the screws on the Iranian economy again with the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act, which aimed to isolate foreign banks that trade with Iran. But sanctions hit ordinary Iranians through rising prices and unemployment, while serving to entrench the very hardline elite that they are intended to hurt.
As a result, the West's hardline adversaries in Tehran are strengthened, while the ordinary Iranians who might resist them are enfeebled and alienated.
A more productive course would be to support Iranians on the side of reform. Potential allies are plentiful: last year's Green Movement protests may have been crushed, but the ideas that informed them still reverberate in the Iranian popular consciousness. Meanwhile, the political elite in Tehran is split by infighting between reformers sympathetic to Green aspirations and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hardliners.
Of course, western leaders can do more to hurt the Iranian reform movement than they can to help it. Mr Obama knows that overt support would allow Mr Ahmadinejad to depict reform leaders as foreign stooges. Similarly, the relentless focus on the nuclear issue emboldens hardliners by giving credence to the idea that the West only seeks to weaken Iran, and that its commitment to democracy and human rights is hollow.
The first act of intelligent, indirect support means for once wrong-footing Tehran's conservatives. At new talks, why not raise the issue of arrests made in Tehran during recent popular protests about the economy? That would stiffen the resolve of millions of Iranian reformers.
A pro-reform strategy would take time. But the West - and the region - has time: by US estimates, Iran is at least three years away from a nuclear weapon. There is also the basic truth that the West cannot indefinitely forestall Iran's increasing regional influence or guarantee an end to its nuclear aspirations. But it can help the Iranian people to change Iran.
David Mattin is a journalist and writer based in London. In 2009 he wrote and presented the BBC documentary The Flight from Tehran
Published: November 8, 2010 04:00 AM