Obama Team Looks For Opening in Iran

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President Barack Obama is saying he wants a new, more open relationship with Iranian leaders — but his new team is hoping Tehran will make the first move.

They’re insisting that this isn’t a back-track from Obama’s call during the campaign for “tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions.”

But it is an early sign that moving directly into face-to-face talks is looking less attractive to the new administration, as it launches an Iran policy review.

The none-too-subtle messages to Tehran began earlier this week with the president himself, who said in an interview with Al-Arabiya that “if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made much the same point Tuesday in her first meeting with reporters: "There is a clear opportunity for the Iranians, as the president expressed in his interview, to demonstrate some willingness to engage meaningfully with the international community," she said. "Whether or not that hand becomes less clenched is really up to them."

State Department acting Spokesman Robert Wood was more blunt: “Iran knows the steps that it needs to take. It's been outlined, and we want to see Iran take those steps.”

He was at the same time careful not to trample on Obama’s campaign pledge: “I did not say there were preconditions for a meeting.”

Still, the message behind all these statements was clear: There might not be preconditions, but it would be much easier politically for the new administration to move ahead quickly with talks if Tehran showed some flexibility.

Without such signals, the administration runs the risk, if it proceeds with direct talks or some other major overture, of seeing the effort collapse—while giving Tehran the propaganda victory of having Washington appear to be the party desperate for a deal.

That was always the danger of the no-preconditions pledge. When John McCain attacked the idea during the campaign, Obama backed away from its slightly, saying that he did not envision entering into high level talks immediately and that lower-level contacts might be necessary first to lay the groundwork for productive negotiations.

One option under consideration, a State Department official said, is to open a U.S government office in Tehran. It would not have the status of an embassy but would be staffed by State Department personnel and coordinate low level contacts with Iranian officials.

What would the White House like to see Iran do? The most dramatic step would be to announce that it was suspending its nuclear program, specifically its efforts to produce enriched uranium. Such a move was the condition the Bush administration set for direct talks with the U.S., but one that it and European governments were never able to achieve in eight years of pressuring Tehran at the United Nations and elsewhere.

With a freeze of the nuclear program unlikely, the U.S. would certainly welcome signals from Iran that it was willing to play a more constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in Iraq, or in Afghanistan.

The problem is that there has been little evidence that Iranian officials are planning an early grand gesture to the new U.S. administration. If anything, hardliners within the regime appear to be interested in imposing their own conditions on improving the relationship, even appearing to taunt Obama and his promise to bring change to Washington.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, called Wednesday for “profound changes” in U.S. foreign policy including an end to support for Israel and an apology to the Islamic republic for past misdeeds, the Associated Press reported.

“We will wait patiently, listen to their words carefully, scrutinize their actions under a magnifier and if change happens truly and fundamentally, we will welcome that," Ahmadinejad said, speaking to a crowd of thousands in the western city of Kermanshah.

So if Tehran doesn’t take the hint and grasp at the chance for better relations with Washington on its own, what will Obama do? Discussions on Iran options are just beginning, administration officials said.

Former senior Bush administration officials say that, other than the possibility of direct talks, the Obama administration has not offered any new ideas yet about how to get Tehran to abandon its nuclear enrichment activities, which U.S. officials have said are part of a weapons program.

“I have yet to hear word one on what they would offer that’s different than what Bush and the Europeans have offered over the last five years—unsuccessfully,” said John Bolton, who was U.N. ambassador during the Bush administration.

The administration’s strategy for Iran is likely to be formulated to a large degree by former State Department Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, whom officials say is the likely choice as special envoy for Iran. So far there has been no announcement of his appointment.

“When we're ready to announce someone to deal with the Iran portfolio in some way, we'll do that,” said Wood, the State Department spokesman. Officials involved say the delay in naming Ross is partly due to discussions about how broadly his mandate will extend and partly to hold down expectations about what might be achievable with Iran in the short term.

Ross has written extensively over the last year about how to forge an effective negotiating strategy with Iran, a problem that he admitted last summer “is no easy task.”

In a lengthy analysis published by the Center for a New American Security, a centrist Washington think tank, Ross recommended setting up a “direct, secret backchannel” to the Iranians with the goal of having “a thorough discussion” and “a common agenda” for improving relations, including dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Ross pointed out that as an aide to then Secretary of State James A. Baker, he helped establish a secret channel to the Syrian government to discuss. But he also noted that efforts to reach out secretly to Iran have been tried before without success.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a veteran of past failed overtures to Tehran, told reporters earlier this week: “Iran is unhelpful in many, many ways in many, many areas, and so I wouldn't be overly optimistic at this point.”

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