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Obama's new approach on Iran

It's hardly heresy for the US to talk to its enemies.

By John Hughes / January 14, 2009

Provo, Utah

In the past 30 years, the United States has pondered regime change, military action, and containment as policies toward Iran. None have proved effective. Now Barack Obama is going to try engagement. In a weekend interview, he pledged a "new approach." We should not get too starry-eyed about this.

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President-elect Obama will not soon sip tea in Tehran with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and come away with his pledges to stop aiding terrorists, abandon its nuclear weapons program, and recognize Israel.

If the political stars align, what we might see is the beginning of considerably lower-level diplomatic engagement, perhaps the establishment of a US diplomatic post in Tehran, and some people-to-people, cultural, and sporting exchanges.

Obama should remember, as Middle East expert Fouad Ajami has written, that the Iranian theocrats are "a skilled and crafty breed." He should heed the warnings in a new Brookings Institution/Council on Foreign Relations report that the "process of engaging Iran will be protracted, arduous, and subject to shifts in Iran's internal dynamics" and does not preclude "tension or even conflict."

As it seeks to establish its empire in the Middle East, Iran has a finger in every major trouble spot in the region. It counsels Syria, funds Hamas and Hezbollah, influences Iraq, threatens Israel, and could even, if it chose, be helpful in Afghanistan.

Those who deem it heresy for the US to talk to its enemies should remember that the outgoing President Bush has already started a low-level dialogue with Iran.

Seasoned statesmen know when and where to begin difficult negotiations. They do not let their presidents go face to face with foreign counterparts until there are reasonable expectations of civility and progress. Before there is any hint of meetings at the presidential level, Obama should seek to elevate the level of discourse through some of the tough envoys available to him.