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Talking to Tehran

Author: Greg Bruno
December 17, 2008

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As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama made talking to Tehran a feature of his foreign policy. Touting "tough, direct presidential diplomacy" to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, Obama vowed during his campaign to engage "without preconditions." But the Iranian response since election day has been more reticent than receptive. After a brief congratulatory letter from the Iranian president, the country's foreign ministry spokesman, Hasan Qashqavi, denounced America's "carrot-and-stick policy" on nuclear issues as "unacceptable and failed" (AP). State-run news outlets have kept up the criticism (IRNA) in the weeks since.

Obama's post-election interviews (NBC) make clear that after eight years of avoiding direct diplomacy, the United States is ready to talk with Iran's ruling mullahs. But whether Iran will listen to what Washington is pitching is another matter. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that "successful engagement with Iran will require a direct channel of communication" with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, no small task given the Iranian regime's historic resentment of American policies. Yet as George Mason University scholar Jack Goldstone writes in a Dar al-Hayat, "Obama must not only signal his willingness to talk, but also a willingness to change U.S. policies." There is no shortage of opinion on what those policies should be.

CFR's Ray Takeyh, with Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution, argues that Washington must "launch a comprehensive diplomatic initiative" that delinks the nuclear question (PDF) from the broader Iran policy playbook. Bilateral talks on Persian Gulf security, for instance, can proceed without uranium enrichment on the table, they suggest. Joshua Muravchik of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, meanwhile, places the onus on Iran's leaders (Daily Star). Muravchik argues Tehran must relinquish "its ambitions for regional dominance and global revolution" before reconciliation is possible. But Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on Iran's nuclear program, offers a more aggressive strategy. In an International Institute for Strategic Studies briefing paper, Fitzpatrick suggests a dual-track approach with tougher threats-export controls and sanctions, for instance-coupled with U.S.-led engagement. "Deterrence policies were employed effectively during the Cold War against far more powerful opponents," Fitzpatrick writes.

Opinions inside Iran appear equally disjointed. While the Iranian public favors normalized U.S.-Iranian relations (Rooz), Iranian scholars and politicians are of two minds (IPS) on what the incoming U.S. administration will bring to the table. Iran insiders tell journalist Gareth Porter that while Obama's election appears to represent a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy, the president-elect's national security team-including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State-seems to mean more of the same. Indeed, harsh words continue to emanate from Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who accepted the president-elect's invitation to stay on as Pentagon chief, recently criticized Iran for its long-range missile program and meddling in Iraq. The latter rebuke came even as a U.S. military commander suggested Iranian support for Iraqi militants (LAT) has declined.

Prospects for a breakthrough via engagement may be ancillary to more fundamental realities inside Iran. A fall in oil prices has dramatically reduced Iran's regional leverage, and surging inflation, food prices, and unemployment could increase pressure for government reform (RFE/RL). Hossein Askari, an expert on Iran and business professor at George Washington University, argues that the Obama administration should capitalize on Tehran's economic hardships and "develop even more effective sanctions" to tighten the screws (National Interest). Then the new White House should wait-six to twelve months-before negotiating, Askari says. "Under duress, Iran is much less fanatical than rhetoric would have it seem." But as CFR President Richard N. Haass argues, time may not be on Obama's side. By January 20, "Iran will be pretty close to having produced enough enriched uranium that could make probably a primitive device," Haass says. "If you have an Iran and an Israel, each of which has a nuclear capability, think about what that would mean...for regional instability. The temptations to go first in such a situation would be enormous."

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