President Obama has gone about as far as he should go in condemning the government of Iran for its crackdown and repression of a popular movement for change in Iran. Since the election on June 12, his rhetoric has become harsher by the day. Yesterday, he said:

The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions.

Don’t we all! But it’s one thing for a Nation columnist to call the actions by the current Iranian regime disgusting and despicable, as I’ve done many times, and it’s another thing for the president of the United States to do it. Because in the next few months, Obama may very well have to send emissaries to sit down and talk to that very regime. Now that he’s condemned the repression, let’s hope Obama goes back to his original plan of trying to get Iran to the table.

The cold, hard reality of Iran is that the current regime, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president is likely to remain in power. Yes, the legitimacy of their government has been stripped away. Yes, the regime has all but eliminated the “republic” part of “Islamic Republic,” relying now on sheer military power to rule. Yes, its crackdown on dissidents has been ugly and brutal.

But if Khamenei and Ahmadinejad want to talk to the United States, perhaps as soon as this fall, America’s answer had better be: Yes.

To be sure, it isn’t clear if Iran’s leaders will want to talk at all. Why? Three reasons. First, because during the election season and afterwards, Ahmadinejad’s campaign whipped up the president’s base, which consists of hard-core ultranationalists and religious zealots, and it won’t be easy to put them back on the leash if the regime decides to talk to the United States. Second, because Khamenei has blamed the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and Israel for the actions of the “terrorists” (i.e., pro-democracy marchers) challenging his authority, and he may find it useful or necessary to demonize the West for the foreseeable future, making it unlikely he will respond positively to any tenders from the West. And third, because most of the more moderate members of Iran’s establishment, including in the field of national security and foreign policy, who might have served as personal envoys for Khamenei in talks with the West, have either sided with the reformists or with conservative opponents of Ahmadinejad in Iran’s parliament and in the camp of Mohsen Rezai, the former Revolutionary Guard commander who ran against Ahmadinejad.

Yesterday, at a forum organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former top State Department official Nick Burns — who retired in 2006 after serving as the point man on Iran policy during the Bush administation — argued that even if Ahmadinejad wants to talk, Obama ought to refuse. David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist, asked Burns, “In trying to stabilize Iran, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may crave negotiations with the United States. Doing so would be very popular in Iran. What should the United States do if that happens?” Burns responded:

“That really is the key policy question. We have to be very careful not to give undue legitimacy to this government, not while people are in the streets. … We should be patient. We should see what happens. For a month? For a year? … We have to be very careful not to get them to the negotiating table very soon. Now is not the time.”

That seems wrong-headed to me, on all counts. While Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may not want to talk soon, for the reasons I stated above, if they do offer to talk I think it will absurd and foolhardy not to take them up on the offer. Spurning an offer by Tehran to talk to Washington would instantly undue all of Obama’s good will in Iran and in the region, and it would give the hardliners ample ammunition to further demonize the United States domestically.

Yesterday, in responding to a reporter’s question at his news conference, here’s how Obama handled that issue:

QUESTION Thank you, Mr. President. Your administration has said that the offer to talk to Iran’s leaders remains open. Can you say if that’s still so, even with all the violence that has been committed by the government against the peaceful protesters? And if it is, is there any red line that your administration won’t cross where that offer will be shut off?

THE PRESIDENT Well, obviously what’s happened in Iran is profound. And we’re still waiting to see how it plays itself out. My position coming into this office has been that the United States has core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn’t possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders.

We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage, and become a part of international norms. It is up to them to make a decision as to whether they choose that path. What we’ve been seeing over the last several days, the last couple of weeks, obviously is not encouraging, in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take. And the fact that they are now in the midst of an extraordinary debate taking place in Iran may end up coloring how they respond to the international community as a whole.

We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed. But just to reiterate, there is a path available to Iran in which their sovereignty is respected, their traditions, their culture, their faith is respected, but one in which they are part of a larger community that has responsibilities and operates according to norms and international rules that are universal. We don’t know how they’re going to respond yet, and that’s what we’re waiting to see.

Reading that carefully, it is clear that Obama isn’t taking the offer to talk off the table. (In other words, all options are on the table!)

In a piece of staged Q & A, Obama called on the Huffington Post, whose reporter rather theatrically forwarded a question to Obama “directly from an Iranian.” Pressed by the reporter to say whether he’d refuse to recognize Ahmadinejad an Iran’s president, Obama said, correctly, “There are significant questions about the legitimacy of the election.” But he added:

“Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government.”

Later, bugged by Major Garrett of Fox News, Obama still insisted that he’s willing to talk to Iran’s leaders, and he reiterated the offer to host Iranian diplomats at July 4 gatherings at US embassies:

GARRETT Are Iranian diplomats still welcome at the embassy on the Fourth of July, sir?

THE PRESIDENT Well, I think as you’re aware, Major, we don’t have formal diplomatic relations with — we don’t have formal diplomatic relations with Iran. I think that we have said that if Iran chooses a path that abides by international norms and principles, then we are interested in healing some of the wounds of 30 years, in terms of U.S.-Iranian relations. But that is a choice that the Iranians are going to have to make.

GARRETT But the offer still stands?

THE PRESIDENT That’s a choice the Iranians are going to have to make.

The neocons, including Elliot Abrams — who’s quoted in the papers today — are pushing hard for Obama to refuse to talk to Iran. Let’s hope he continues to reject that advice.