SINCE Barack Obama's victory, the concept of "talking to Iran" has become Washington's flavor of the month.
Talking to Iran, of course, was one of candidate Obama's main
foreign-policy planks. It sounded both intelligent and attractive.
After all, if one could achieve all those desirable results just by
talking to the mullahs, why not?
There's a hitch, however.
Obama appears to be having second thoughts about the wisdom of an
idea announced largely as a means of strengthening his anti-Bush
message rather than dealing with a dangerous foreign foe. All
indications from him since his election are that he's in no hurry to
The other day, in response to a cable from President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad congratulating him on his win, Obama indicated he was in no
mood to accept the Iranian's invitation to dance - for several reasons.
To start with, he has realized that his offer of unconditional
talks with Tehran could destroy the six-nation coalition that has
managed to pass three United Nations Security Council resolutions
imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Some allies, including
France, have issued direct warnings that Obama's campaign promise may
encourage Iran to speed up its nuclear program. Israel's Foreign
Minister Tzipi Livni, for her part, has indicated "deep reservations"
about Obama's Iran gambit.
More important, perhaps, with the election over, Obama remembers
that talking to the mullahs is nothing new. First launched by West
German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in 1980, it has been
tried by the European Union, successive US administrations and several
Arab countries for a quarter of a century - producing nothing but
grief. Genscher ended up describing the Khomeinist regime as a trap
whose embrace is best avoided.
To be sure, Obama can't suddenly declare that he no longer wants
direct, unconditional talks. That would enrage his anti-war base. So,
he is trying to bring the camel down from the roof, as the Persian
proverb has it, without appearing to have made a U-turn.
Obama no longer talks of "meeting them anywhere, anytime." Instead,
he speaks of engaging Iran "at a time and place of my choosing." His
initial idea of talking to Ahmadinejad is also gone. Now, he says he'd
talk to "appropriate Iranian leadership" (whatever that means).
Clearly, he has toned down the concept of "unconditional talks." He
talks of "careful preparations," while his advisers say that he won't
seek talks with Tehran until after the Iranian presidential election
next summer. The idea is to deny Ahmadinejad a breakthrough with
America that would bolster his re-election bid.
That Obama is rethinking his rash idea of unconditional talks with
Tehran, even if that means alienating key allies, is a welcome
development. His assertion that the Iranian problem can't be solved
with "a knee-jerk reaction" is also welcome. Nevertheless, if the
alternative is doing nothing, the new Obama position may prove more
dangerous than the one he's trying to abandon.
That's because the clock is running out on those who wish to
prevent the mullahs from building a nuclear arsenal. Last month, the
International Atomic Energy Agency warned that Iran has speeded up its
nuclear program. The IAEA says that Iran, in "a covert bid to expand
its nuclear program, recently tested ways of retrieving highly enriched
uranium from waste-reactor fuels."
Most experts agree that "the moment of truth" in Iran's nuclear
standoff with the UN is likely to come during Obama's presidency -
probably in 2010 or 2011. Unless Obama manages to stop the process
before that, he could end up facing nuclear-armed mullahs. Then, the
choice would be between acknowledging a fait accompli and using force to change it.
Obama urgently needs a credible policy for dealing with the
Khomeinist threat. No one is asking for a knee-jerk reaction. But
buying time (the mullahs' specialty) is no alternative, either.