Iran: Will Talks Happen under Obama?

Article excerpt

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. …