Obama may need to rethink Iran plans

When it comes to Iran and Iraq, the next president will have a small window to set our policy on a new path.

Middle East nations have written off the Bush administration. Iran’s rulers have clearly decided to bide their time and wait to see who next occupies the Oval Office. There’s little incentive to make concessions on Iraq, let alone on the nuclear issue, to a lame duck still hoping for regime change.

The winner in November will have a slim but real chance to get U.S.-Iran relations on a new track – a key to Iraq progress. That’s if the winner is a Democrat (on Iran, Sen. John McCain seems determined to continue the failed Bush line of endless confrontation).

Many Iran experts believe Iran may make a gesture to a new Democratic president. But Tehran will also be trying to exploit any perceived weakness in the next U.S. leader. A victorious Democrat would have to take office fully prepared to grapple with an adversary that has frustrated America for 30 years.

So I was eager to ask Sen. Barack Obama his thoughts on dealing with Iran when he spoke to the editorial boards of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News on Monday. Obama has called for setting a 16-month timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq and a “diplomatic surge” in the Mideast that includes Iran.

Obama is right to call for a diplomatic surge. But I believe his strategy will need rethinking if he gets the Democratic nod.

The smart part of his strategy involves talking to Iran without preconditions. Obama is on target in saying that an essential part of an Iraq strategy is “diplomacy … not just among the factions in Iraq … but also involving the powers in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and also Syria and Iran.” If the latter two are excluded, he said, “they will continue to cause problems and headaches. If you’ve got (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-) Maliki inviting (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad over for discussions and treating him as an ally, it’s hard to figure how we’re going to structure a policy in which Iran would be entirely excluded.”

On this Obama is right.

But with whom would he negotiate? The senator says he’d talk with Iran’s leaders. An invitation to Ahmadinejad would, however, reward the hardest-line faction in Tehran and give the Iranian president an excuse to claim Americans were bowing to his unacceptable vision. It could also boost him in Iran’s 2009 presidential elections.

Is Obama aware of this danger?

“I have said consistently that we should have direct talks with Iran without preconditions but not without preparation,” Obama said. “Any time we initiate talks … it is going to proceed in a step-by-step fashion with lower-level diplomats meeting and maybe … discussions of noncontroversial topics, which over time lead to more substantial discussions.

“And so I would not meet with Iran without an agenda, and on that agenda would be the odious and constant attacks rhetorically on Israel, the funding of Hamas and Hezbollah, the development of nuclear weapons and stability in Iraq. :

“That would be our agenda. They might have another agenda.”

Obama noted correctly that the Bush administration’s tactics “give an excuse to Iran to portray itself as being bullied by an administration bent on regime change” and give Russia and China an excuse to stand on the sidelines. Talks without preconditions would test Iran’s readiness to behave like a rational actor on the world stage.

And what about talking to Ahmadinejad?

Obama’s response: “I would include Ahmadinejad to the extent that he is part of an Iranian government, but I would not restrict my meetings to him. I don’t know where he will be a year or year and a half from now.” (Ahmadinejad could lose in 2009.)

Obama said he would also seek to meet “with negotiators who may have more power than (Ahmadinejad), including the clerics who are the ultimate authority.” I presume the senator meant Iran’s most powerful leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

My question: Why even raise the Ahmadinejad issue? Talks with Iran can be commenced via back channels or via senior U.S. emissaries with experience in dealing with Tehran. A leadership summit should be left for announcing major breakthroughs, which are at best years away.

One more point where I think Obama’s sequencing is off. Any timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal should be used as a negotiating card with Iran. Giving it away for free, before talks even start, badly weakens the U.S. position. It encourages Iraqi and regional players to start arming for the post-U.S. era.

Obama’s on the right track. But for his diplomatic surge to work, he needs the strongest possible cards in hand.