The American people have been focused inward during the hard-fought election season, so it is no surprise that media attention has shifted away from the tense situation in the Middle East. Unfortunately, ignoring the imminent danger of a nuclear-armed Iran has done little to cool President Ahmadinejad’s zeal for weapons capable of obliterating New York or wiping Israel “from the pages of time.” The next administration cannot afford to ignore the threat from Iran, given that international watchdogs believe Iran will be nuclear-capable by 2015 at the latest.

Thankfully, President Obama will have a tool at his disposal that President Bush did not: low oil prices. Ahmadinejad has been flying high on $4-per-gallon gas, but he and Iran’s ayatollahs are facing tough decisions as gas plummets below $2 a gallon nationwide. Middle East talking heads have spent the last two weeks debating whether Iran’s economy, already under a great deal of strain due to international sanctions, is nearing a breaking point. The emerging consensus is that Iran’s hands are tied so long as oil sells for less than $80 a barrel, and Iran will not be able to afford further nuclear “energy” research so long as oil remains cheap and international sanctions remain in place.

The international community, long seen as a joke by most realist foreign policy experts, has shown surprising resolve in its determination to squeeze Iran with economic sanctions until the ayatollahs agree to end their country’s nuclear program. Obama has an incredible opportunity to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat so long as he acts immediately upon assuming office. The Iranian people have already suffered two “winters of discontent” due to international sanctions, and this winter is already looking far bleaker than anything Iran’s extremely young population has seen before. With the theocratic regime losing popularity at a rate that would make President Bush and Congress proud, this is a time to force Iran to the table with hat in hand, not a time for concessions.

Obama isn’t off the mark in searching for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Defense analysts and foreign affairs experts are unanimous in believing that any attack on Iran by either the United States or Israel would jeopardize all of the progress the American-led coalition has made in stabilizing Iraq. Iranian retaliatory strikes would likely kill thousands of American soldiers, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and countless others throughout the region. Though massive air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites must remain on the table, they are an undesirable option that should not be exercised until the tyrants of Tehran are truly on the cusp of possessing a functional nuclear weapon.

Unfortunately, the incoming administration has become too preoccupied with the undesirability of the military contingency plans, and has promised unconditional meetings with Iran’s leaders. This is a blunder of epic proportions. Iran should be brought to the table, but only with the understanding that the complete elimination of Iran’s nuclear program is a necessary prerequisite to both the removal of economic sanctions and a security guarantee from the United States, European Union and Israel.

The Iranian leadership, far removed from the struggles of ordinary Iranians, will resist such concessions. Accordingly, the United States and its allies should begin a coordinated political destabilization program in Tehran. Iran is a nation of discontented college and graduate school students forced by government blunders to work menial jobs, subsist at a low standard of living and face global ostracism. We can get students in the streets demanding that Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs accept any reasonable bargain to alleviate their hardship. Combine that with a generous public offer of economic reintegration into the globalized world and a security guarantee, and the cash-strapped and unpopular leadership will have no choice but to accept a total shutdown of uranium enrichment facilities with international weapons inspectors present.

We have an opportunity to avoid potentially disastrous military conflict between Iran and the West. If Iran actually acquires nuclear weapons, it will pose an existential threat against Israel and virtually guarantee that Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups will attempt to use nuclear weapons in attacks on the United States, necessitating immediate military action against Iran and likely sparking a Mideast conflagration.

If we don’t embolden the Iranians by bowing to their demands of unconditional talks, we can bring the madmen to heel using traditional international power politics. It’s time to play hardball with Iran, President Obama. When dealing with dictators, it is far better to be feared than loved, and we can use the long-suffering Iranian people to make the Iranian leadership very afraid indeed.

Trevor Wagener is a sophomore in Pierson College.