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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"Iran's reliance on imported gasoline to fuel its economy and military is the regime's Achilles' heel," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a statement supporting the legislation. "This legislation would give the Obama administration real leverage when it negotiates over the regime's nuclear weapons program."Skip to next paragraph
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The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of California and Rep. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois, is the latest congressional effort to use Iran's dependence on foreign-refined gasoline to influence its behavior on its nuclear program.
But such legislation – despite its use of descriptions like "diplomatic enhancement" – is more likely to dampen prospects for Obama's diplomacy toward Iran, say some observers.
"When the Iranians see someone moving towards them, they often move a few steps back and play hard to get. And they are already doing that," says White, citing recent Iranian announcements of further progress on uranium enrichment as well as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at a United Nations conference this week in which he again condemned Israel.
Any US legislation aimed at Iran's imported gasoline would thus provoke a further withdrawal, White says. The legislation is "exactly the kind of thing we're going to see in reaction to engaging with Iran," he says, "particularly from those people committed to keeping Iran in its box."
Moderate Arab countries concerned
The repercussions of Obama's efforts to engage Iran are not limited to the US, but extend deep into that region. The Middle East's uncertainty over US aims is reflected in Egypt's diplomatic row with Iran over the reported discovery of a Hezbollah cell in Egypt. Also, during the visit in Washington this week of Jordan's King Abdullah, he was thought to have raised concerns with US officials about Iran's threat to the region.
"The American desire to engage Iran, which has many positive sides, is causing a considerable amount of anxiety in the moderate camp in the Middle East, not just in Israel," says Asher Susser, senior research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Egypt, Jordan, and other moderate Arab countries are nervously watching how "engagement" plays out, Professor Susser said in a conference call with reporters Thursday organized by the Israel Policy Forum, a US group that advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Editor’s note: The original version misidentified the group that organized the conference call.]
"If Obama's engagement with Iran means reduction and constraining of Iran's regional interests, it will be welcome. If it leads to acceptance of Iranian domineering, they [moderate Arabs] will be extremely anxious and concerned," he said.
In any case, no one expects much headway in talks with Iran until after the country's presidential election in June. In the meantime, White says, observers should watch Clinton for any sign of discord in the engagement process.
Citing her tough words to Congress on sanctions, he says, "We may be seeing a reluctance on her part to reach out [to Iran] as much as might be necessary."