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If you stop reading Roger Cohen’s latest column on Iran in The New York Times before the fold (yes, some of us still read the actual newspaper), Cohen’s argument appears well-considered and interesting. But things turn sour if you read all the way to the end.

During the Bush years, Cohen writes in "Realpolitik for Iran," Washington repeatedly turned down opportunities to engage the regime in Tehran and perhaps turn it away from the path of extremism and terrorism.

Imagine if Roosevelt in 1942 had said to Stalin, sorry, Joe, we don’t like your Communist ideology so we’re not going to accept your help in crushing the Nazis. I know you’re powerful, but we don’t deal with evil.

That’s a rough equivalent on the stupidity scale of what Bush achieved by consigning Iran’s theocracy to the axis of evil and failing to probe how the country might have helped in two wars and the wider Middle East when the conciliatory Mohammad Khatami was president.

Seldom in the annals of American diplomacy has moral absolutism trumped realism to such devastating effect. Bush gifted Iran increased power without taking even a peek at how that might serve U.S. objectives.

Over the last few years, Iran indeed has grown more powerful, making the price for peace with the Islamic Republic much higher than it was in 2001, when Iran was a far less formidable foe. The Bushies can argue that talking with Iran would have rewarded Tehran for bad behavior, but President Bush’s failure to punish Iran adequately essentially amounted to the same thing.

The U.S. goal is to curb Iranian power, its support for terrorism and its nuclear weapons program. Obama may believe it ought to be done with carrots, and Bush may have believed it should be done with sticks. Reasonable people can disagree about which strategy might yield the most gains. But it’s clear that embracing neither option, as Bush did, produces the most dangerous result.

Here’s Cohen’s view of what a U.S.-Iran peace deal might look like today:

Iran ceases military support for Hamas and Hezbollah; adopts a “Malaysian” approach to Israel (nonrecognition and noninterference); agrees to work for stability in Iraq and Afghanistan; accepts intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency verification of a limited nuclear program for peaceful ends only; promises to fight Qaeda terrorism; commits to improving its human rights record.

The United States commits itself to the Islamic Republic’s security and endorses its pivotal regional role; accepts Iran’s right to operate a limited enrichment facility with several hundred centrifuges for research purposes; agrees to Iran’s acquiring a new nuclear power reactor from the French; promises to back Iran’s entry into the World Trade Organization; returns seized Iranian assets; lifts all sanctions; and notes past Iranian statements that it will endorse a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians.

Cohen goes wrong when he drags Israel into it. Noting that an Israeli attack on Iran could derail any such peace deal, he concludes:

To avoid that nightmare Obama will have to get tougher with Israel than any U.S. president in recent years. It’s time.

Why does every Cohen column about Iran end up being about slamming Israel?

Israel has not stood in the way of U.S. contacts with Iran. On the contrary, many Israelis, such as Daniel Levy, an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Ehud Barak, have pushed for the U.S. to engage with Iran (see Levy’s December 2007 Op-Ed in JTA).

Those, like Obama, who espouse the engagement approach toward Iran should not make the same mistake Cohen does in nearly every column on Iran: They should understand the true nature of the regime in Tehran (expecting its nuclear program to resemble Brazil’s or Japan’s, as Cohen hopes, is a bit unrealistic) and recognize that the obstacle to peace in the Middle East today is not in Jerusalem, but in Tehran.

Demonizing Israel, as Cohen does, obscures the point.

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