TEHRAN: An offer by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to take up President Barack Obama's oft-repeated invitation for direct talks between the United States and Iran signals the start of a long-delayed war-or-peace drama that may help define the Obama administration's plans to remake America's approach to diplomacy.
But it also opens up the possibility of new tensions with Israel, which less than a year ago sought American help in preparing an attack on Iran's main nuclear facility and is expected to drift further to the right after the parliamentary elections Tuesday. And Obama will have to decide whether to continue a major covert program against Iran's nuclear ambitions, even while beginning to engage in diplomacy.
Ahmadinejad promised Tuesday that if the United States was truly serious about changing the countries' relations, then Iran was ready to respond in kind. "It is clear that change should be fundamental, not tactical, and our people welcome real changes," he said. "Our nation is ready to hold talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere."
Three weeks ago, Obama promised in his Inaugural Address a new relationship with nations willing to "unclench" their fists, an offer he repeated at his news conference on Monday evening.
It is too early to know quite how to read Ahmadinejad's response.He coupled his offer of talks with an attack on the former U.S. president, George W. Bush, calling for him to be "tried and punished" for his policies and actions in the Middle East and the Gulf region.
It is also never exactly clear who is running Iran's foreign policy, and there is good reason to question whether the country's fiery president will overcome his mismanagement of the economy to survive the June 12 elections.
Yet analysts note that, for all his harsh words, Ahmadinejad has sent a surprising number of positive signals to the United States in recent years. He sent a letter to Bush in 2006 and a letter to Obama congratulating him on his election victory, and he has traveled four times to New York since he took office to take part in United Nations meetings.
"Generally speaking, Iran favors ties with the United States because falling oil prices have hurt its economy dramatically," said Saeed Leylaz, an economist and political analyst in Tehran. "The United States needs to take the first major step, otherwise Iran cannot go any farther," he said. But he cautioned that the United States should hold direct talks only with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader.
There is no question that a new dynamic is afoot, one that seems likely to become even more complicated after the election in Israel is settled. If the government that emerges is even more determined to end the Iranian nuclear program by any means necessary, Obama may find himself trying to negotiate with one of America's most determined adversaries while restraining one of its closest allies.
"I could draw you a scenario in which this new combination of players leads to the first real talks with Iran in three decades," one of the key players on the issue for Obama said last week, declining to speak on the record because the new administration had not even named its team, much less its strategy. "And I could draw you one in which the first big foreign crisis of the Obama presidency is a really nasty confrontation, either because the Israelis strike or because we won't let them."
In public, Obama is talking only about the first possibility. On Monday evening, he talked about "looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can engage directly with them," and said he was looking for "diplomatic overtures." But he cautioned that "there's been a lot of mistrust built up over the years" and that after 30 years of a deep freeze, openings are "not going to happen overnight."
To protect his right flank, Obama quickly added the caveat that Iran should know that "we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable" and that "a nuclear Iran could set off a nuclear arms race in the region that would be profoundly destabilizing."
But curiously, he did not repeat the warning he made repeatedly during the campaign, that he would never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, or even the nuclear fuel and capability to build one.
Whether this comes to anything, or founders on the question of Iran's race to enrich more uranium even while the two presidents circle each other, is anyone's guess. But it is bound to make the new government in Israel nervous, and the clock in Jerusalem is ticking a lot faster on the Iranian nuclear problem than it is in Washington.As The New York Times reported last month, a little less than a year ago the Israeli government came to Bush seeking bunker-busting bombs, refueling capability and overflight rights over Iraq to strike Iran's main nuclear enrichment plant, at Natanz. Bush - who elevated pre-emption to a doctrine and declared he would never allow Iran to develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon - turned the Israelis down.
Bush told the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, now in his last days in office, to wait, giving a new American covert effort to disable the Natanz facility time to work. Reluctantly, the Israelis agreed, and when the Bush administration disbanded last month, it was still unclear whether Olmert had really intended to go ahead with the attack or was just bluffing in an effort to force the United States to deal with the problem.
Now comes the replay, this time with some new players.
Over the weekend, Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. offered up the warning that Obama sidestepped on Monday night: If Iran stays on its current course, sanctions will intensify. The subtext of the Israeli election has been even clearer: To various degrees, all the candidates have made clear they plan to take on not only Hamas, but its Iranian sponsors.
And in Iran itself, the race for the presidency has been energized by the announcement over the weekend by former President Mohammad Khatami, the reformist who never mustered the power or the will to carry out much reform, that he wants his old job back. Presumably, that is a relief to Washington, which desperately wants to see Ahmadinejad sent to an early and permanent retirement, and with him Iran's proclamations about Israel's eventual destruction and America's inevitable decline.
But it was under Khatami, the reformer, that the expansion of Iran's nuclear ambitions blossomed. If the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear ambitions is correct, the push to develop a weapons design, and the suspension of that effort in 2003, all happened on his watch. Iran contends that its nuclear program is solely for energy production, but Israel and many Western countries, including the United States, say the program is just a cover for attempts to build a bomb.
Obama's task over the next few months will be to demonstrate that he can simultaneously make progress with the Iranians and buy a little time from the Israelis. That will require some hard decisions, first among them whether the United States will stick to its insistence that the entire nuclear infrastructure in Iran, down to the last centrifuge, be dismantled.
It is almost inconceivable, some of Obama's aides acknowledge, that the Iranians will be willing to give up everything needed to produce a weapon. And it is hard to imagine that the Israelis will settle for anything less.
By Nazila Fathi and David E. Sanger
February 11, 2009