Obama's first big diplomacy test: Iran
Can the president's philosophy of talking with the enemy keep Iran away from nuclear weapons?
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As Mr. Obama has pursued his foreign policy in the initial weeks of his presidency, he has begun to put his belief that America should talk to its adversaries into practice with countries like Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, and even North Korea. But with no country are the stakes of this approach higher than with Iran.
"Iran is a far higher priority, and the success or failure of the approach is far more consequential because of the nuclear issue, the volatility of the region, and Iran being sandwiched in there between Iraq and Afghanistan," says Wayne White, a former State Department policy planning official.
With Iran continuing to pursue – and offer boastful progress reports on – a nuclear program that Western countries believe is designed to deliver nuclear weapons, pressure is mounting on Obama to show that diplomacy can ensure Iran never possesses the bomb.
Israel, under conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is rumbling with rumors of possible military strikes on Iran's nuclear installations if the United States, which has agreed to join international talks with Iran on its nuclear program, cannot demonstrate progress soon. And Arab countries including Egypt, the Gulf states, and Jordan are letting US officials know of their growing nervousness over US engagement with Iran.
Talking as means, not end
With the stakes so high, and with so many domestic and foreign actors watching closely or jostling to influence the US position, the Obama administration is anxious to demonstrate that there is nothing weak or pie-in-the-sky about its approach to Iran.
In testimony before Congress this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed hope that the talks with Iran and four other world powers will succeed in ending Iran's pursuit of uranium enrichment – a process that can lead to production of fuel for a nuclear weapon.
But in comments to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, she also stressed that by joining the talks, the US is "laying the groundwork for the kind of very tough … crippling sanctions that might be necessary" if talks fail.
Reinforcing Obama's view that talking is not an end in itself but helps the US attain its goals, Secretary Clinton said, "[B]y following the diplomatic path we are on, we gain credibility and influence with a number of nations who would have to participate in order to make the sanctions regime as tight and crippling as we would want it to be."
However, some congressional leaders don't want the US to wait before applying more economic pressure. Proceeding from the position that tightening the economic screws now will make negotiations more attractive to Iran, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced Thursday the Iran Diplomatic Enhancement Act, which would extend existing US sanctions to companies involved in selling gasoline to Iran.