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
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. …