The loud, angry and sterile debate over the Iranian president’s visit to Columbia University raises a more serious problem that has long confounded American policymakers: How to cope with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s real masters, the corrupt regime of mullahs who determine both foreign and domestic policy in Iran. Their rule has meant awful suffering for the Iranian people, whose democratic aspirations remain frustrated, and instability for the Middle East and the world, as the leadership in Tehran constantly seeks provocations to distract from its own failures.

Now the same geopolitical geniuses who promoted the invasion of Iraq — and thereby endowed the mullahs with more influence than they ever enjoyed before — insist that the only solution is another war. They claim that we are already at war and should begin bombing Iranian nuclear and military sites as soon as possible.

What we should have learned after nearly 30 years is that neither blustering threats nor diplomatic isolation have advanced our interests, but have only bolstered the worst elements in the Iranian autocracy. And what we could begin to learn this week is that direct engagement, even to the point of entertaining a demagogue like Ahmadinejad in a prestigious educational forum, may eventually prove more useful.

Once merely a small-time populist politician in his hometown, Ahmadinejad has become a folk hero throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, thanks to his provocations against America, Israel and the West. Sunni Muslims and secular-minded Arabs who might otherwise oppose Shiite authoritarianism applaud him because they perceive him as standing up for them against Western oppressors. Each expression of American outrage against the Iranian president from afar, every screaming tabloid headline and radio rant, only inflates the significance of this unimpressive and fundamentally unimportant man. And the constant threats of war from within the Bush White House and its neoconservative echo chamber intensify the effectiveness of his propaganda, both within his own country and across the Middle East.

The moment of dialogue at Columbia, by contrast, shrank Ahmadinejad back down to a more realistic size. Unlike Tehran, where his thugs can intimidate, imprison and even murder those who dare to question him, he had to stand and listen meekly as Columbia students and president Lee Bollinger demanded answers about his government’s repressive acts. Although Bollinger went over the top in parroting various White House themes in his brusque language, his commitment to free speech reflected well on the United States.

The U.S. government should make sure that the Columbia videotape is broadcast everywhere, proving that we live up to our ideals and do not fear the likes of Ahmadinejad. Let the world watch him respond with pious banalities, feeble dodges and absurd falsehoods — “we have no homosexuals” — and then judge whether he is a hero or a fraud.

When the sideshow ends and the mullahs’ puppet returns to Tehran, we will still have to decide how to deal with the regime he represents. As Peter Galbraith explains in a penetrating essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, the Bush administration has vastly empowered the Iranian leaders by overthrowing their enemy Saddam Hussein and installing their Shiite allies as Baghdad’s new government.

With 160,000 American troops in Iraq, moreover, we are not exactly in the optimal strategic position to wage war against Iran, despite the bloody fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney. Unlike Saddam in 2003, whose armed forces disintegrated within days, Tehran has a real army and air force, and sufficient naval power to block the Iraqi ports. Our forces would have to fight not only the 800,000-man Iranian army but also the Shiite militias, who could swiftly cut our resupply route.

It is an ugly prospect to contemplate, with potential losses that would dwarf our casualties in Iraq and an aftermath that would be still more chaotic, dangerous and ruinous to our reputation. Assuming we would eventually win, would that mean taking control of Iran — with the same kind of “success” we have enjoyed next door?

The alternative is what Iran’s courageous democratic dissidents have long implored us to do, and what the Iraq Study Group urged last year. Engage the regime, draw Iran into the world economic system and penetrate its closed borders peacefully to strengthen its civil society and weaken its overgrown theocratic state. Stop making heroes of the villainous mullahs and their puppets, and start dividing the pragmatists and reformers from the fanatics. And mute the threats that in Iranian eyes justify a nuclear weapons program.

That would be the beginning of wisdom.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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