Finally, after three decades of mutual animosity, outright threats and puerile name-calling, the United States and Iran late last month engaged in a constructive dialogue about their common concerns in the Middle East. Already the optimism that followed those talks has given way to the usual tit-for-tat accusations. Still, one can't help but wonder: After all these years, could the U.S. and Iran slowly be moving toward a more diplomatic relationship or even - dare I say it - rapprochement?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. For that to happen, Iran would have to meet certain conditions. It must stop sending arms to Hezbollah. It must cease meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it must pursue a more constructive role in stabilizing Iraq.
But the U.S. has conditions of its own to meet before it can be considered a reliable negotiating partner. Most important, it must once and for all abandon its policy of actively pursuing regime change in Iran.
This policy has only strengthened the hand of Iran's clerical regime, accelerated its nuclear program, helped justify its repression of political opposition and fostered its paranoia against internal and external threats.
It also accounts for Iran's seizure of four Iranian Americans - a journalist, a social scientist, an academic and a peace activist - all of whom have been accused of spying for the U.S. The charges are, no doubt, absurd. But Iran defends its actions by linking them to President Bush's recent decision to employ covert "black" operations - including the use of Iranian exiles and emigres living in the United States - to foment revolution against the mullahs.
The great irony, of course, is that abandoning regime change in Iran is the surest way to ensure the regime's collapse. This is because, contrary to widespread perception, Iran is already a democracy. It's just not a very successful one.
Unlike most other countries in the Middle East, Iran has a deeply embedded democratic tradition that goes back more than a century. The country boasts what is arguably the most robust political culture in the Muslim world. Since 1980, Iran has held more than 20 elections that have drawn 60 percent to 80 percent of the electorate to the polls. Despite harsh restrictions on who may run for office, Iran's elections offer lively political campaigns and raucous debates between contrasting candidates who do not shy away from any topic.
Iran also has one of the most energetic civil societies in the region, with diverse political action groups, a fearless media and dozens of active student organizations that repeatedly stage strikes and sit-ins in defiance of the government. Thousands of Iranian nongovernmental organizations work to foster ethnic, legal and, most especially, women's rights. Iranian women now hold 60 percent of the college degrees in the country and enjoy literacy rates approaching 90 percent.
True, all of these civil organizations and democratic movements labor under the autocratic rule of an unelected shadow government. But when I talk to Iranians about their problems, few cite the restrictions on their freedom posed by the Islamic republic. Rather, their primary complaint is the country's stagnant economy. Nearly a third of the population is unemployed, almost 40 percent live in poverty and the annual rate of inflation is 24 percent, so few Iranians have the means to translate their political activism into meaningful reform.
If the U.S. engaged Iran the way it engages other "autocratic democracies" in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc, that would do far more to encourage democratic change than anything tried so far. The lesson to be learned from America's misadventure in Iraq is that democracy cannot be promoted from the top down; it must be reared from within.
Iran has the civil and democratic infrastructure necessary for drastic sociopolitical change. But these institutions can only exert themselves if Iranians are allowed to emerge from their forced political and economic isolation.
Taking regime change off the table also would allow the United States to deal more effectively with Iran's nuclear program. It is likely that Iran's leaders do not want nuclear weapons, because of their prohibitive cost and significant security risk. But they would like to have the option of developing them fairly quickly if necessary. Iran has learned a lesson from its fellow "axis of evil" nations: One did not have nukes and was obliterated by the U.S. military; the other has nukes and is being plied with money to relinquish them.
In any case, the longer the U.S. insists that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before diplomatic negotiations can begin, the more sophisticated and irreversible Iran's nuclear program will become. There is, however, still plenty of time to ensure that Iran's civilian program does not morph into a military one - but only if Iran can be convinced that it is off the regime-change list.
The days in which Iran could be viewed as a rogue state teetering on the verge of collapse are over. Thanks to U.S. actions in the region, Iran is the new power in the Middle East. It's well past time the United States started treating it as such.
Reza Aslan is the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam." This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.