Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the Iranian leader Washington loves to hate — has only a few more months left in his presidential term. But this is not cause for celebration. If President Barack Obama really wants to improve relations with Tehran, working with Mr. Ahmadinejad may be his best bet. In a speech earlier this month commemorating the Islamic revolution’s anniversary, an event normally reserved for anti-American rhetoric, Mr. Ahmadinejad declared Iran’s readiness to talk to the United States. The election of a new president in June could slam shut a rare window of opportunity.
Mr. Obama seems to understand this. He recently said that he will be looking for “openings” in the months ahead for face-to-face talks with Iran. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France cautioned that it would be wiser to hold off on talks until after the Iranian presidential elections. But this would be a bad idea. While it is too early to predict the elections’ outcome, Mr. Ahmadinejad is hardly guaranteed to win. Perhaps Mr. Sarkozy believes that the victory of a more moderate president, like Mohammad Khatami, would set the stage for more productive talks with Iran. In reality, Mr. Ahmadinejad may be the most capable of standing up to Tehran’s hard-liners. Mr. Khatami may not have the courage — or the clout among conservatives — to take the same kinds of risks.
Mr. Ahmadinejad has, after all, boldly gone where no Iranian president has ventured before. His harsh rhetoric belies his willingness to reach out to those with differing views. In 2006, he wrote his famous 18-page letter to President George W. Bush discussing religious values, history and international relations. He was the first Iranian head of state to visit the United Arab Emirates, a country that has a longstanding conflict with Iran over the ownership of some small but strategically important islands. He was also the first Iranian president to participate in the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council — an organization that is frowned upon by Iranians for its use of “Arabian Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf.”
He has signaled his interest in resuming full diplomatic relations with Egypt, to the dismay of hard-liners. (Iran severed diplomatic ties with Egypt three decades ago.) In the past, Mr. Ahmadinejad has indicated his willingness to open an embassy in Cairo. Last year, he telephoned President Hosni Mubarak to discuss regional issues.
But Mr. Ahmadinejad’s boldest moves have been toward the United States. Shortly after the American presidential election, Mr. Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to Mr. Obama congratulating him on his historic victory. This marked the first time, at least since the revolution, that an Iranian leader congratulated the winner of an election in the United States. To be sure, some wonder if this friendly gesture reflected official sentiment in Tehran. Mr. Ahmadinejad is, after all, not the most powerful or influential person in his country. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei basically steers Iran’s foreign policy. But it is foolish to believe that Mr. Ahmadinejad was truly acting alone. He could not have sent a congratulatory letter to Mr. Obama without at least the tacit permission of the supreme leader.
It is even possible that Mr. Khamenei indirectly delegated this task to the president. The supreme leader is hardly in a position to make such a gesture. If Iran’s religious leader takes direct responsibility for establishing relations with the United States, his supporters might see it as an abandonment of revolutionary rhetoric. But there are other signs that Tehran does not completely disapprove of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s behavior. Kayhan, the conservative daily newspaper that is aligned with Ayatollah Khamanei and is notorious for attacks on Iranians who show an interest in resuming relations with America, has only mildly criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad for his overtures to Washington.
Mr. Obama has expressed interest in engaging in dialogue with Iran, and there is no time to waste. Over the next few months he should initiate negotiations without preconditions and establish formal diplomatic ties with Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad, for all his faults, has taken unprecedented steps to reach out to the United States. Iran’s next leader may not be able to do the same. Mr. Obama must seize the opportunity to shake the Iranian president’s outstretched hand.
Ali Reza Eshraghi, a former newspaper editor in Iran and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.