US begins to reach out to Iran, but slowly and cautiously

Iran's nuclear program prompts Israel to signal possible action in 2010. More sanctions could become an option.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
LAST WEEK: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. Her overtures to Russia are partly seen as an effort to enlist Russia’s support for a new US approach to Iran.

The Obama administration is settling on an eyes-wide-open approach to Iran that will test the potential for a significant breakthrough in relations. The approach will start with small diplomatic steps, yet be mindful that the window is fast closing on peacefully halting Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon.

The tougher international sanctions that have also been contemplated are unlikely to get crucial support from Russia and China before the fall at best – and only after the United States is seen as making good on President Obama's campaign pledge to engage with America's adversaries, including Tehran.

At the same time, however, a harder Israeli government is coming on board and sending signals that it will not wait much into 2010 before taking military action against Iranian nuclear sites if diplomacy bears no fruit. So the US is now moving to test the diplomatic channels with Tehran, even before Iran's national elections in June.

The Americans "will engage the Iranians, they will do it before the [Iranian] elections, and they will do it by first sending signals of the will of the US to engage," says a senior European official who spoke on condition of anonymity. He had hours of talks Monday with State Department officials focused on Iran policy.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced plans for an international conference on Afghanistan, and she said that, as a neighboring country, Iran was likely to be invited. That announcement raised speculation that American and Iranian officials could make initial direct contacts in the conference's margins.

Secretary Clinton's overtures to Russia – including last week's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – are also partly seen as an effort to enlist Russia's support for a new American approach to Iran.

Yet such steps are widely seen as maneuvering around the edges, and they would have to be followed by some larger action – for example, a letter from Mr. Obama to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei – for US engagement with Iran to really get off the ground, Iran analysts say.

"Inviting Iran to a conference on Afghanistan or having ambassadors meet in Baghdad, those are tactical moves, and Tehran is saying it's not interested in tactical overtures anymore," says Alex Vatanka, Islamic affairs analyst at Jane's Information Group in Alexandria, Va. "The Iranians, including the supreme leader, are interested in relations with the US, but what they are interested in is a strategic shift in America's perceptions of the Iranian regime."

The senior European official says he made the same point to his US counterparts, including Dennis Ross, who was recently named a special adviser to Clinton who will focus on Iran. The Iranians see the prospect of relations with the US in broader terms than their nuclear program, the official says.

"In a sense, the future of the regime is at stake," he says. "Their first and only [concern] is the survival of the regime."

That means the Iranians are likely to move slowly on any diplomatic feelers the US may send out. Already, the Iranians are sending signals that they have no intentions of responding quickly.

A speech given by Ayatollah Khamenei last week, in which he called Israel a "cancerous tumor" and blasted the Palestinian Authority for working with Israel, "will only make life difficult in Washington for people arguing for engagement with Iran," Mr. Vatanka says.

Clinton has herself raised the prospect that the Iranians may decide they don't want to negotiate. She has also said they may overestimate America's interest in negotiations and the international community's patience with Tehran.

As a result, the US is also interested in convincing the Iranians that international powers are prepared to take up harsher sanctions if the diplomatic route quickly proves to be a dead end.

But whether the international community would be ready for tougher sanctions even after a failed US attempt at engagement remains in doubt.

The best way to get Iran's attention would be through sanctions on its oil industry, some Iran experts say, especially given the view of some that the Iranian economy is on the brink. Russia, who wouldn't mind seeing the higher oil prices that sanctions would probably spur, might be convinced, these experts say.

Others say that a broad improvement in US-Russia relations will be a determining factor in what the international community does. "China will follow Russia on this issue, so the key is Russia," says Nancy Soderberg, a former US ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.

But China would be less likely to follow Russia's lead in the midst of a global economic downtown, some analysts counter. In addition, Vatanka of Jane's Information Group says, Western countries are already so little involved in Iran's oil industry that any action they take is unlikely to move Tehran.

"The Iranians have learned to live with the minimum," he says. "I really see nothing in terms of the oil industry that could be a game-changer at this point."

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