Then-candidate Barack Obama avowed in the YouTube debate of July 23, 2007 that, yes, he would “be willing to meet separately, without precondition . . . with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venzuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries.”   While he took a lot of flak for that statement, including from his now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he’s now taking steps to carry out that pledge.

  Kim Ghattas of BBC News reports that his administration is “finalizing its policy for engaging Iran.”

The approach is likely to involve a combination of small steps to initiate contact between the two countries and may include an overture in the form of a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, according to Western diplomats and senior US officials. A senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that he expected the letter to be sent to Mr Khamenei before the Iranian elections this summer, although Washington’s allies would prefer this step to be taken after the vote, to avoid influencing the election.

Ghattas reports, “A similar type of letter was drafted during the Bush administration but never sent. ”  Most likely, the administration will continue its predecessor’s policy of conducting most of the negotiations in private.

“Iran recognises that its regional influence derives in large measure from its defiance of the United States, so Iran would prefer not to publicly advertise its discussions with the United States unless or until real progress has been made,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad will have to strike a delicate balance, where his most powerful backers are anti-American while a lot of Iranian people are favourably inclined to the US.”

Meanwhile, Clinton has invited the regime in Teheran to a March 31 conference on Afghanistan at the Hague.  They are reportedly weighing the offer.

Juan Cole, a noted regional scholar at the University of Michigan, thinks writing to Khameini rather than  Ahmadinejad “would be brilliant and would immediately give the Americans the upper hand in follow-up governmental contacts.”

WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter and policy advisor to George W. Bush,  argues, “So far, Clinton’s approach has prevailed on Iran, for a number of reasons.”  That is, rather than simply hopping a plane to Teheran for unstructured talks, Obama is insisting on “preconditions,” namely that the groundwork be worked out at lower levels. But, as I noted shortly before the election, the preconditions vs. preparations debate was always a semantic one and, in fact, all the serious candidates had essentially the same policy.

[D]espite all the rhetoric of “change” from an unpopular Bush administration policy, both candidates are advocating a continuation of the second term Bush policy.  While the neoconservatives might have trumped Colin Powell and other Realists in the first term, Condi Rice and Bob Gates and the Realists took over thereafter, with a total victory after Don Rumsfeld was replaced after the Republicans’ 2006 midterm debacle.  

An Obama administration may bring a more pleasant voice and a McCain adminstration may be a bit more combative and they’ll both have different policy priorities than the other and their predecessor.  Either way, though, the U.S. will talk to representatives from governments with whom we have sharp disagreements, shifting to direct head-of-government talks when and only when sufficient preparation/preconditions have been met to avoid embarrassment.

Beyond that, we’re unlikely to achieve much of substance any time soon.  As Don Snow notes, the differences between the United States and Iran are substantive ones over matters of vital national interest, not superficial reactions to presidential style.   I’m reminded of remarks by Henry Kissinger, speaking to the Atlantic Council a couple of months back as part of our Christopher Makins lecture series

In response to a question from Boston Globe foreign policy reporter Farah Stockman, who asked him for creative solutions to our nuclear standoff with Iran along the lines of the Nixon administration’s opening to China, Kissinger quipped that they didn’t simply hop on an airplane one day and begin talks.   Instead, it was “a three year project” that was “developed slowly and carefully.”   The real breakthrough “did not come at the negotiating table” as a result of his considerable charm and diplomatic brilliance but rather in seeing the strategic opportunity three years earlier presented by the massing of 42 Soviet divisions on the Manchurian border.

To get anywhere, the United States will have to accomodate ourselves to the fact that Iran is a major regional power and provide security and energy assurances and make other concessions sufficiently valuable to Iran to make giving up the prestige and security advantages of a nuclear weapons program worthwhile.  And the Iranian regime will have to give up the Great Satan as its favorite object for diverting its public’s attention from the woeful state in which they live. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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