TEHRAN, Iran - At one of the embassies offering islands of peace from the gridlocked, grinding Iranian capital, a Western diplomat said this of United States and allied policy toward Iran: "You could argue that our policy has not yet failed."
That would be the most charitable view. But it is failing. Where Iran had a handful of centrifuges enriching uranium four years ago, it now has at least 5,000. With its enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan removed by U.S. military force, it has extended its regional influence.
This city, whose real-estate boom has rivaled Manhattan's in recent years, is still awash in cash from the giddy oil price season. Those billions, even ebbing, equal confidence. The Iranian Revolution, at its 30th anniversary, has recharged its batteries on a global wave of Bush-inspired, Gaza-cemented, anti-Western sentiment.
It's time to think again, not merely to recalibrate old formulas, in order to end the three-decade impasse in U.S.-Iranian ties, a breakdown of huge cost and menace. A non-relationship has locked itself in stereotypes as American threats ("the military option must be kept on the table") and demands (stop the centrifuges) meet a wall of Iranian pride.
One place to begin that reflection might be in southern Tehran, where I was the other day on the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's triumphant return from France. I'd been at an airport ceremony, featuring a kitschy reproduction of the Air France jumbo jet that brought him home, and found myself surrounded by graves near the Khomeini shrine.
The graves, many adorned with wrenching photos of 16-year-olds, stretch away, hundreds of thousands of them, mostly for victims of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which came after the 1978-79 revolutionary violence. Iran bled for a decade.
The psychological impact is still palpable. Iranians don't want to bleed again; they want to get ahead. In this, they resemble the post-Cultural Revolution Chinese.
For all the inflammatory official rhetoric, pragmatism reigns. Money, education and opportunity drive people. Years of mayhem in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan have concentrated Iranian minds: Who needs that?
"Overthrowing regimes is no longer on the agenda," Mohammad Atrianfar, the former editor of a reformist magazine shut down by the government, told me. "Reform, yes, upheaval, no."
Young people - and well over half the population is younger than 30 - may want a freer press or freer dress. But cell phones, widespread Internet access and satellite TV (government restrictions are as easily circumvented as Western sanctions) sap confrontational adrenaline. The Islamic Revolution has proved resilient in part through flexibility.
In this land of competing currents, the United States has focused on one: Iran as an expansionist, would-be nuclear power. Iran's political constellation includes those who have given past support to terrorist organizations. But axis-of-evil myopia has led U.S. policymakers to underestimate the social, psychological and political forces for pragmatism, compromise and stability. Iran has not waged a war of aggression for a very long time.
Tehran shares many American interests, including a democratic Iraq, because that will be a Shiite-governed Iraq, and a unified Iraq stable enough to ensure access to holy cities such as Najaf.
It opposes Taliban redux in Afghanistan and al-Qaida's Sunni fanaticism. Its democracy is flawed but by Middle East standards vibrant. Both words in its self-description - Islamic Republic - count.
These common interests and the long misreading of Iranian priorities demand that President Barack Obama innovate. The radical Bush presidency produced a radical Iranian response. While modern Iraq was sketched on a 20th-century map, Persia is a millennial thing. Its pride requires treatment as an equal.
To suggest, as a recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington did, that Obama must "begin augmenting the military lever" to complement intensified diplomacy is to recommend burrowing deeper into failure.
Blinking is never pleasant but can be shrewd. America and its allies should drop their insistence that enrichment at Natanz cease before talks begin (Iran could always restart enrichment anyway). Obama should also say the military threat has moved under the table in the name of restoring dialogue. These steps would place the onus on Iran.
Can revolutionary Iran live without "Death to America?" Powerful hard-line Iranian factions think not, but I'm with the majority of Iranians who believe their Islamic Republic can coexist with a functioning U.S. relationship.
Obama should do five other things: Address his opening to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, because he decides. State that America is not in the Iranian regime-change game. Act soon rather than wait for the Iranian presidential elections in June; Khamenei will still be around after them. Start with small steps that build trust. Treat the nuclear issue within the whole range of U.S.-Iranian relations rather than as its distorting focus.
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 229 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.
© 2009 New York Times News Service