It may be comforting to believe that, with diplomacy, Washington and Tehran can resolve their differences. But it is dangerous and naïve. Democracy in Iran is a charade, and factionalism between hard-liners and reformers is a sideshow. Iranians elect a president, but absolute power resides with the supreme leader who rules for life. Because sovereignty resides not with the people, but with God, popular will is irrelevant. What the parliament believes doesn't matter. The Revolutionary Guards, chosen for their loyalty and discipline, answer to the supreme leader. His appointees crush dissent.
What should Washington do? It should not engage. Diplomacy absent Iranian sincerity is dangerous. Between 2000 and 2005, the height of Iran's reformist period, European Union trade with Tehran tripled. Rather than reform, the regime invested the hard currency into its ballistic missile and covert nuclear program. Today, Iran uses engagement to spin its centrifuges and run the clock.
The United States wants Tehran to stop its nuclear program. Iranians want democracy, not theocracy. Here, interests converge. Although military action can delay Tehran's nuclear program, it cannot stop it. The real danger isn't Iran's bomb, however, but the regime that would wield it.
While Europe embraces the China model of trade and dialogue, the Supreme Leader looks to Tiananmen Square. So should Washington. Rather than fund outside groups, Washington should invest in a template for change. No one knew ahead of time the Chinese student who stopped a line of tanks; the important thing was he had the space to emerge. U.S. policy should create such space. Independent labor would make the regime more accountable to its people. Unions could force the regime to invest in schools, not centrifuges. Independent media and communications could let a real civil society to emerge. This takes money. Those denouncing U.S. funding are not the imprisoned student and labor activists, but reformists loyal to theocracy, and gullible pundits. Tehran's crackdown on dissent predates U.S. support for civil society. And the Iranian overreaction shows both its vulnerability and the efficacy of U.S. pressure.