Obama's first big diplomacy test: Iran

Can the president's philosophy of talking with the enemy keep Iran away from nuclear weapons?

Iran is shaping up to be the defining test of President Obama's engage-our-enemies diplomacy.

As Mr. Obama has pursued his foreign policy in the initial weeks of his presidency, he has begun to put his belief that America should talk to its adversaries into practice with countries like Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, and even North Korea. But with no country are the stakes of this approach higher than with Iran.

"Iran is a far higher priority, and the success or failure of the approach is far more consequential because of the nuclear issue, the volatility of the region, and Iran being sandwiched in there between Iraq and Afghanistan," says Wayne White, a former State Department policy planning official.

With Iran continuing to pursue – and offer boastful progress reports on – a nuclear program that Western countries believe is designed to deliver nuclear weapons, pressure is mounting on Obama to show that diplomacy can ensure Iran never possesses the bomb.

Israel, under conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is rumbling with rumors of possible military strikes on Iran's nuclear installations if the United States, which has agreed to join international talks with Iran on its nuclear program, cannot demonstrate progress soon. And Arab countries including Egypt, the Gulf states, and Jordan are letting US officials know of their growing nervousness over US engagement with Iran.

"[O]n Iran, Obama knows he has a ticking clock facing him," says Mr. White, now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. "This has got to take precedent strategically."

Talking as means, not end

With the stakes so high, and with so many domestic and foreign actors watching closely or jostling to influence the US position, the Obama administration is anxious to demonstrate that there is nothing weak or pie-in-the-sky about its approach to Iran.

In testimony before Congress this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed hope that the talks with Iran and four other world powers will succeed in ending Iran's pursuit of uranium enrichment – a process that can lead to production of fuel for a nuclear weapon.

But in comments to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, she also stressed that by joining the talks, the US is "laying the groundwork for the kind of very tough … crippling sanctions that might be necessary" if talks fail.

Reinforcing Obama's view that talking is not an end in itself but helps the US attain its goals, Secretary Clinton said, "[B]y following the diplomatic path we are on, we gain credibility and influence with a number of nations who would have to participate in order to make the sanctions regime as tight and crippling as we would want it to be."

However, some congressional leaders don't want the US to wait before applying more economic pressure. Proceeding from the position that tightening the economic screws now will make negotiations more attractive to Iran, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced Thursday the Iran Diplomatic Enhancement Act, which would extend existing US sanctions to companies involved in selling gasoline to Iran.

"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."

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."

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