A delicate dance of teaser diplomacy has begun between Iran and the Obama administration. Both sides are deciding how, or even whether, to hold talks that could, ultimately, reshape the Middle East. As it nears a nuclear capability, Iran can afford to play for time. But how much patience does President Obama have in such a case?
The first inklings of US resolve may come this week as American envoy William Burns consults with Europe on possible talks with a country that supports terrorists but also holds immense reserves of oil and gas.
Three allies – Britain, Germany, and France – have spent five years talking to Iran about ending its nuclear program, only to fail. Those talks did perhaps deflect a possible attack on Iranian atomic facilities by Israel or the Bush administration. But they resulted in only limited United Nations-approved sanctions on the Islamic regime. And this "EU-3" group of negotiators did finally set a condition that Iran must suspend its nuclear quest before talks resume.
Now Mr. Obama wants to drop that precondition. This new US position makes some in Europe wonder if the new president may end up not being tough enough on Iran or may even be ready to accept it developing atomic weapons.
But Obama's message to Europe is this: Talking with Iran will help bring more support for tougher sanctions applied by even more countries, and thus help prevent a military confrontation. China, for instance, still supplies Iran with much of what it needs.
So far, Iran isn't responding with open arms to Obama's offers. Ruled by ruthless Muslim mullahs, it faces a largely rigged election for president in June that could uncork social discontent over mishandling of the economy. The clerical contest for power may explain the tough conditions set down for talks with the US by the vulnerable president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
At the least, Europeans advise, the US should wait until after the election, especially if a reformer is chosen president. But Obama needs Iran's help soon to pull US forces out of Iraq and to suppress the Taliban in Afghanistan. And with predictions for Iran becoming able to assemble a nuclear weapon ranging from one to five years, Obama can't afford to wait too long.
Even if talks begin – probably with Kissinger-to-China-like secrecy – the potential compromises to achieve suspension of Iran's nuclear ambitions may be huge. Will the US accept Iran as the major power in the Gulf? Will it allow Iran to continue making threats at Israel?
Simply offering talks is a big trump card for Obama to play. His hand would be strengthened if he first split off Iran's key ally, Syria, with a peace deal that would end support for Lebanon's Hezbollah and for Hamas in Gaza. He could also force Israel to freeze Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But this week, Obama must first deal with Europe's concerns, which include a fear that the US might put itself first in line to tap Iran's petroleum if talks succeed.
Speedy but effective diplomacy that doesn't let Iran buy time and lures it into being a responsible regional player must be Obama's strategy. Otherwise, the dominant US role in the Middle East will diminish and the region will face a nuclear arms race.