By Alireza JafarzadehForeign Affairs Analyst

The Iranian regime's firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacked President Obama today for boycotting the United Nation's racism conference in Durban, South Africa. Two days earlier, the international racism conference in Geneva -- which was boycotted by many Western nations -- fell into disarray after Ahmadinejad's outrageous speech triggered a mass walkout and furious rebukes from Western capitals.

"I should give you, the new U.S. administration, this advice. Mr. Obama came to power with the slogan of 'change', meaning the American people, like the rest of the world, want a change in the colonialism policy," Ahmadinejad told crowds in a speech broadcast live from Varamin, a city south of Tehran amid the habitual slogans of "death to America and death to Israel."

On Tuesday, April 21, Obama vowed that he will continue to follow "tough" direct diplomacy with Iran despite the latest anti-Israel tirade by Ahmadinejad. After holding talks with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Obama said that the Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric at the United Nations racism conference was "appalling" and "harmful."

A week earlier, Ahmadinejad openly derided the international community's intentions to curb Tehran's nuclear program, while boasting about the country's 7,000 centrifuges currently spinning in Natanz. He also joined other officials who in recent days have strongly rejected abandoning the nuclear program -- despite new overtures from the Obama administration for talks.

In what appeared to be an official response to an April 8 invitation from the United States, and five other major powers, to attend a meeting to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions, Tehran announced today that it welcomes talks, and is ready to offer a proposal to resolve the dispute over its uranium enrichment activities. This word came from the state-run IRNA news agency.

Appearing before the lawmakers in Congress today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States is preparing for "very tough sanctions" against Iran if it rebuffs offers on its nuclear program. "We are also laying the groundwork for the kind of very tough sanctions, I think you said 'crippling sanctions,' that might be necessary in the event that our offers are either rejected or the process is inconclusive or unsuccessful," Clinton said at a Congressional hearing on America's foreign policy.

Although the Iranian rulers' political cunning would not permit them to rebuff talks outright, they plan to simply exploit negotiations as a tactic to buy more precious time for their nuclear program. In light of that, Washington's strategy must be fueled with real political vigor, lest the U.S. risks being entangled by Tehran's shrewd tactics or being compelled to take drastic measures.

To secure success, Washington needs to be cognizant of a crucial distinction between Iran's people and its leaders. The Iranian people are so opposed to the ruling regime, that in the past year alone they took to the streets 8,000 times in various cities around the country to protest against the clerics and their vicious policies including the decision to squander the country's wealth to fund a nuclear program. Iran's citizens did this despite hundreds of public hangings -- and even stonings -- used by the regime to dissuade an angry populace from rising up against them.

Obviously, President Obama cannot extend a hand of friendship to both the oppressed and their oppressors. His administration should differentiate between Iran's rulers and Iran's people, if it hopes to realize its goal of genuine change in the U.S. relationship with Iran.

The administration must avoid the vacillating ambivalence so characteristic of the Bush years and those that preceeded it. The risky road that was taken by successive administrations has led the world ever closer to nuclear proliferation, regional instability and terrorism. Each administration its best to engage Tehran with various diplomatic overtures and even with embarrassing political concessions. Each one failed. As a result the tentacles of Tehran's fundamentalism and terrorism dug ever deeper into Middle Eastern capitals, its centrifuges multiplied exponentially and its missile range extended even to parts of Europe.

If the current administration continues down this road, there is no rational reason to expect it will lead to a new destination. President Obama has wisely expressed a desire to chart a new, more promising course with Iran. History can serve as a valuable guide. Its most unequivocal lesson? Appeasing this rogue state has not only failed to bring about a positive change in its behavior it has also emboldened it to behave more aggressively.

How can the administration establish a link with the Iranian people? It cannot do so on the streets of Tehran, where ordinary people cannot speak their minds freely because they live every day under the dark cloud of suppression. Neither can it do so in Tehran's lavish government palaces, because their occupants hardly qualify as the Iranian people's true representatives.

Instead, the administration should acknowledge the opposition movement seeking democratic change in Iran. The opposition has an impressive ability to draw large crowds among Iranians and enjoys substantial support among members of Congress in the United States as well as thousands of parliamentarians in Europe.

In an acknowledged "goodwill gesture" to Tehran, the Iranian opposition was blacklisted in 1997. Although within the past year, the United Kingdom and European Union delisted the main opposition, MEK, after successive court rulings declared the organization is not terrorist, the Bush administration declined to delist the group, much to the satisfaction of Iran's rulers.

A well thought out approach to Iran would have Iran's democratic opposition at its heart as a viable conduit to reach the Iranian people. That would be a breath of fresh air for a population suffocated by ruthless, unelected rulers.

By removing all obstacles from the main Iranian opposition groups, President Obama can send a clear message to the Iranian people -- who have the real potential to bring about change -- that Americans are on their side. Then, and only then, will the Iranian regime take Washington seriously for a change.

Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of The Iran Threat, President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis (Palgrave: February 2008).

Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.

Until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, of which People's Mojahedin of Iran is the largest member organization.