Obama's new approach on Iran

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

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.

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.

Presumably there will be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who once warned that the US would obliterate Iran if it nuked Israel. There is Robert Gates, to be retained as secretary of Defense. He has had harsh words for Iran's meddling in Iraq, but favors diplomacy and "soft power" before military action.

There is William Burns, a key figure in the tough negotiations on nuclear disarmament with Communist North Korea. Mrs. Clinton is expected to retain him as under-secretary of State. Dennis Ross, longtime Middle East adviser, is expected to get the Iran portfolio. None of these are apostles of appeasement.

Discerning Tehran's readiness to negotiate is, as a headline in a piece by Mr. Ajami once put it, like going "back to the Iranian bazaar." But President Ahmadinejad did send Obama a rare congratulatory letter upon his election. There are signs of political unrest in Iran. Falling oil prices have wrought havoc with the economy. Elections are due in June, and Mohammad Khatami, a leading reformist who earlier served two terms as president, is threatening to run against Ahmadinejad. This could be the time for Tehran to test a new American administration with its price for a more cooperative Iran.

The Iranians might want to probe just exactly what, if any, long-term secret understandings there may be about the US military presence in Iraq.

They might want to discuss what "covert action" the US has under way to sabotage an Iranian nuclear weapons program. As reported by The New York Times, Mr. Bush had informed the Israelis of the covert action when he declined to supply Israel with materiel for an airstrike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Obama could offer relief from current sanctions. There could be unfreezing of blocked Iranian assets. There could be offers of economic cooperation. There could be diplomatic recognition. There could be cultural and sporting exchanges. The US admitted the Iranian national basketball team last year for games in Texas and Utah. Washington could encourage a major American symphony orchestra to visit Tehran. Iranian artists would in return be welcomed to the US.

Obama campaigned on a platform of "change." It may now be time to see whether there is any change in US relations with a country that has widespread ability to spread war or peace in the Middle East.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration. He is a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.

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