Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Obama's outreach to Iran may be backed by tougher sanctions

WASHINGTON: The Obama administration may take a tough line with Tehran in coming months even as it signals a willingness to move toward direct talks with Iranian officials, according to President Barack Obama's aides and outside experts who have consulted with the government about Iran. While Obama is expected to soften the Bush administration's line against talking to Iran, the aides said, he also may seek to toughen sanctions. Iran's announcement Tuesday that it had launched its first satellite into orbit - a matter that Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, described as being of "acute concern to this administration" - may reinforce the impulse to get tough. "This action does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region," Gibbs said, adding that the Obama administration "will use all elements of our national power to deal with Iran and to help it be a responsible member of the international community."A further indication of Obama's approach could come on Wednesday, when William Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, is to meet in Germany with world powers seeking to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.Obama told the Arabic language television station Al Arabiya last week that "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." But among the circle of experts advising Obama on Iran, several have also advocated increasing the pressure on Tehran.Dennis Ross, the longtime Middle East peace negotiator who is expected to be named to a senior post handling Iran, has long argued that the United States must persuade its European allies to increase economic pressure on Iran. A Bipartisan Policy Center task force that included Ross issued a report in September saying "the Europeans make war more likely if they do not strengthen sanctions against Iran and effectively end all commercial relations."Gary Samore, a former arms-control negotiator in the Clinton administration who is expected to become Obama's nonproliferation czar, has argued that any carrot offered to Iran should be accompanied by a bigger stick.Aides to Obama say Samore has favored offering Tehran warmer relations with the United States, including lifting certain American sanctions and assuring the Iranian leadership that the United States will not pursue regime change. (Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. has said that he thought the United States should assure Iran that it would not pursue regime change.)But Samore has also argued that such an offer is not enough unless if comes backed by the threat of stronger sanctions from the United States, Europe, Russia and China - like, for instance, a ban on foreign investment in Iran's oil and gas industry.The aides, along with other advisers, spoke about the direction of Iran policy on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.Both Samore and Ross are listed on the Web site for United Against Nuclear Iran, an organization dedicated to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The Web site lists Samore as a member of the group's advisory board and Ross as a co-founder.The goal of getting Iran to agree to suspend its uranium enrichment has eluded the Bush administration and America's European allies, in part, some foreign policy analysts say, because Russia, China, and some European countries have balked at the idea of increasing economic pressure on Iran.Obama's aides are hoping he can talk those countries into doing for him what they were unwilling to do for Bush."I think Obama's trip in April will be very important," one administration official said, referring to Obama's expected trip to attend the NATO summit meeting in Strasbourg, where he will meet with a number of European leaders for the first time as president.Some Europeans have signaled that they are open to additional sanctions against Iran, viewing them as a diplomatic lever that could lead to direct talks between the United States and Iran."We want to be helpful in making sure that the outstretched hand of President Obama is a strong hand," the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said in an interview after his first meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.Several European diplomats said France, Britain and Germany might be willing to consider sanctions if the Obama administration makes an effort to improve the atmosphere with Iran first.Obama's aides said no decision has been made about how to proceed on Iran."We're still reviewing Iran policy," said Robert Wood, the acting State Department spokesman. Indeed, Ross has yet to be named to his new post. And while Clinton also struck a conciliatory note toward Iran last week, Obama's top aides have yet to sit down for a substantive meeting on Iran, administration officials said.American policy is also likely to be complicated by presidential elections scheduled for June in Iran. An overture by the United States would raise two risks, experts say: that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would benefit politically from such a gesture, and that he might choose to rebuff Washington to score political points before the voting.At the same time, several experts said the Obama administration cannot afford to sit on its hands, in part because any further delay in persuading Iran to change course would give Tehran more time to enrich uranium."Coming out of the barrel like a jack-in-box, saying, 'Meet us in two days in Geneva for talks,' would be a mistake," said Thomas Pickering, a former under secretary of state for political affairs who has taken part in unofficial contacts with Iranian officials. "But you have to pursue negotiations, regardless," he said. "To wait around for a more favorable president is not a good idea."Pickering and other Iran experts favor a series of "confidence-building steps," which could open the door to more substantive direct contacts. Among those could be the opening of an American interests section in Tehran, a low-level diplomatic outpost.That would enable the United States to issue visas to Iranians in Tehran, rather than forcing them to go outside the country to apply, as is now the case.The two countries could also improve communication between their navies in the Gulf, which has been poor ever since 1988, when an American guided-missile cruiser shot down an Iranian passenger jet that commanders said had been mistaken for a fighter jet.U.S. athletes' visas withheldIran has not issued visas for the American women's badminton team that was to take part in a tournament in Tehran because of the team's late application, The Associated Press reported Wednesday, citing the Iranian Foreign Ministry.The U.S. team had been expected to arrive in Tehran on Wednesday from Dubai. It was to have been the first U.S.-Iranian exchange under the Obama administration and had been seen as part of a new U.S. approach to engage Iran.The 12-member team - eight female players and four coaches and managers representing USA Badminton - was to have competed in the Iran Fajr International Badminton Tournament, which begins on Friday.The U.S. State Department said Monday that the American squad had been invited by the Iranian Badminton Federation and that it hoped to extend an invitation to Iran's national team to come to the United States in July.Previous U.S.-Iranian sports exchanges, which started in January 2007, have included wrestlers and weightlifters as well as basketball, table tennis and water polo players. Since then, the department has sent 32 American athletes to Iran and brought 75 Iranian athletes and coaches to the United States, it said.
Herals Tribune