Policy on Iran will shape perceptions of president-elect
Debate has intensified about how - and when - Iran should be approached by the incoming regime, writes Ruadhán Mac Cormaicin New York
IN HINDSIGHT, some of Barack Obama's campaign staff recall an exchange that took place at a Democratic primary debate in July 2007 as a critical moment in his journey to the White House.
During the televised event, Obama was asked if he would be willing to meet separately, without preconditions, during the first year of his administration, the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Obama answered simply: "I would."
Hillary Clinton quickly seized on the remark as evidence of Obama's naivety about global power politics.
According to the New Yorker, Obama's senior staff realised immediately that this would cause them problems. In a campaign conference call the next morning, they began to discuss how the campaign would avoid talking about an issue that Clinton was sure to make the story of the day.
But Obama, who was listening to the conversation, took the phone from an aide and instructed them not to back down.
According to one source quoted by the magazine, Obama said something along these lines: "This is ridiculous. We met with Stalin, we met with Mao. The idea that we can't meet with [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is ridiculous. This is a bunch of Washington-insider conventional wisdom that makes no sense. We should not run from this debate. We should have it."
So instead of writing a memo explaining away Obama's remark, the campaign team wrote an aggressive defence of the position and went on the offensive. The incident gave the campaign a new sense of self-confidence and the policy held firm.
When the primary season gave way to the general election campaign in August, the question of whether to talk to Tehran became one of the most significant points of foreign policy divergence between Obama and John McCain.
With president-elect Obama now assembling his foreign and national security teams in advance of his inauguration in January, attention is turning to how that important break with the current administration might play out.
In Democratic circles, debate has intensified about just how - and when - Iran should be approached by the incoming regime.
In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs (published before the election), the influential former US assistant secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke - who is rumoured to be in contention for the secretary of state job - wrote that policy on Iran and Iraq would shape perceptions of the new president more than any other issue.
Already the rhetorical tenor has changed. Among the roll-call of heads of state who rushed to congratulate Obama last week, the most unexpected name was that of Ahmadinejad.
Diplomatic ties between Iran and the US were severed in 1979; this was the first time an Iranian leader had congratulated the winner of the a US election since the Iranian Revolution.
Some analysts believe the populist Ahmadinejad, who faces an election next June, realises that rapprochement with Washington would be popular with voters at home.
For Obama, who said he would respond "appropriately", the question is whether to risk strengthening Ahmadinejad's domestic position by opening channels of communication before the June election or waiting for the outcome, which could mean a friendlier, more reform-minded interlocutor would be in place.
Either way, Holbrooke acknowledges that there is no certainty that serious talks are possible with the real power centre of Iran: supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle.
Holbrooke suggests that before starting down the diplomatic track, contacts should begin through private and confidential channels to determine if there is a basis for continuing.
The existing low-level communication through the US and Iranian embassies in Baghdad could allow for these initial inquiries.
Within days of last week's election, Dr Alon Ben-Meir, a well-connected Middle East specialist at New York University, published a detailed paper outlining how negotiations could begin.
There are critical requisites that Obama should consider to pave the way for talks, he writes, not least showing Iran the respect it craves but was denied since US president George W Bush's "axis of evil" speech in 2002.
The US should also stop threatening the regime and make clear that it has no intention of interfering in Iran's domestic affairs.
Ben-Meir suggests negotiations should proceed along three concurrent tracks. The first would follow the present format of the "P5+1" (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), with the US taking the lead, and the focus should be on Iran's uranium enrichment programme and the economic incentive package to be offered in exchange for permanent suspension. He also suggests a three-month limit, to keep the Iranians from tactical stalling.
The second track would consist of bilateral talks between the US and Iran, focusing on grievances against each other and ways to resolve them.
The two sides are not without some common aims: both want to see the Shia government succeed in Iraq and they are bound by their opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan and an interest in regular energy exports from the Gulf.
The third track would be secret US-Iran talks mediated by a third party (possibly Turkey, which has played such a role recently in talks between Israel and Syria), with an emphasis on sensitive regional security issues.
Iran accused the US of double standards when it recently concluded a deal to sell nuclear technology to India but, as with Holbrooke and Obama himself, Ben-Meir's starting point is that a nuclear Iran is not an option.
That would lead to regional proliferation of mass-killing weapons and embolden Iran to bully and intimidate its small neighbours, he says. Moreover, he argues, a nuclear Iran would "dramatically change the security equilibrium of the region" by forcing Israel or even the US into military action to undo the Iranian technological breakthrough, potentially igniting a major regional conflagration.
"A nuclear Iran is not an option and, due to the urgency of the nuclear issue, the new administration must resolve to address it without any delays."