Iran: Will talks happen under Obama?

A period of reestablishing relations with Iran's partners seems likely. Also expect contacts with lower-tier Iranian officials.

Alex Brandon/AP/file
Experts: Barack Obama spoke in Richmond, Va., last month after a foreign-policy meeting. Mr. Obama has made a 'talk to our enemies' position a highlight of his diplomatic vision.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama made a "talk to our enemies" position a highlight of his diplomatic vision, using that stance in particular to underscore how American foreign policy under him would change toward Iran.

But neither close Obama advisers nor Iran experts are expecting a rush to dialogue with Tehran come Jan. 20, for a number of tactical and event-driven reasons:

•The economic crisis will consume much of the new president's attention and is likely to put off major diplomatic initiatives.

•The sinking price of oil is seen as having clipped Iran's wings, raised domestic woes for Tehran, and made negotiations somewhat less urgent.

•And, most important, Iran holds presidential elections in June, leaving the United States wary of doing anything beforehand that might be used by Iran's extremist and anti-Western forces – in particular President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – to electoral advantage.

None of this means Iran can be expected to have slowed its nuclear program and its pursuit of uranium-enrichment technology, Iran experts say. Indeed, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Wednesday in its latest report on Iran that the country continues to build up its store of low-enriched uranium – it now has 630 kilograms (1,385 pounds) stockpiled – which, with the right know-how, could be the basis for conversion to the highly enriched uranium that would be needed for a bomb.

Still, what seems more likely than a quick invitation to direct talks with Tehran is a period of reestablishing relations with partners also influential with Iran. The new administration could also explore means of multiplying contacts with lower-tier Iranian officials.

"Barack Obama made it clear he was prepared to engage Iran directly, but he also said we have to prepare," said Dennis Ross, Mr. Obama's top Middle East adviser, speaking Tuesday at a meeting of the Anti-Defamation League in Denver.

What that is likely to mean, Iran and nonproliferation experts say, is that while dialogue and diplomacy are a foregone conclusion, the priority in the new administration will be on getting any Iran initiative right.

"The question now changes from the what to the how – things like sequence and timing," says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington-based advocate of curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Concerning timing, he says his recommendation to Obama is "wait – do not rush into this."

Why? Mr. Cirincione cites Iran's presidential election in June. "We want to see how domestic politics play out in the Iranian elections next year," he said Tuesday, speaking to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington. "You don't want Ahmadinejad to be given the credit for bringing Iran to the table."

What the US should begin immediately, he adds, is making and cultivating contacts with Iranian diplomats on issues that matter to both countries, like stability in Iraq and Afghanistan and Persian Gulf security. That approach gets a nod from James Dobbins, who developed a working relationship with numerous Iranian officials when he served in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations – at least until President Bush cut off contacts with Iran.

"My own view is that dialogue with Iran is not going to lead to immediate results," said Mr. Dobbins, now at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va., who also spoke to the NIAC Tuesday. "But [we should] allow diplomats to speak to Iranians, free [them] to engage Iranians."

Another possible initiative is the opening of a US interests section office – a step below a full embassy. This would put US diplomats in Tehran to cultivate contacts with a wide array of Iranians, including academics and students. The Bush administration had been expected to announce the opening of an interests section this summer, but Mr. Bush opted not to inject such an attention-grabbing decision into the presidential race, sources who were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue say.

Yet even as most Middle East experts downplay the chances of any quick breakthroughs with Iran, some insist that prospects could nevertheless be enhanced by diplomatic initiatives with the potential for indirect impact on Iran.

One example is improved relations with Russia. "It's our mishandling of the Russia portfolio that has emboldened the Iranians," says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center in Washington.

Fixing that relationship, he adds, "would send a very tough signal to the Iranians that they might want to reconsider their policies." Mr. Kemp says he anticipates an early effort from the Obama administration for another round of international economic sanctions against Iran.

The Obama administration should also make plain early on that it supports the Israeli-Syrian dialogue, Kemp adds, thereby signaling to Iran that a new American approach is at work in the region – one that engages Tehran's assumed partners. That may not halt Iran's nuclear program, but altogether the efforts might lead Tehran toward a compromise on uranium enrichment, Kemp says, "and buy us some time."

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