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The road to Tehran

Obama's team has made its first moves toward a dialogue with Iran. The challenge is to communicate.

March 09, 2009

The Obama administration's multi-pronged Iran policy began to come into focus last week with diplomatic overtures to Tehran and efforts to woo its regional allies. Before taking office, Barack Obama spoke of opening a dialogue with Iran. On her first trip to the Middle East as secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed an international conference on Afghanistan that would include Iranian officials and provide an opportunity for face-to-face engagement.

The invitation meets one of Iran's immediate goals, which is for U.S. recognition as a regional power. The U.S. and Shiite Iran have a common enemy in the Sunni Taliban, and the administration hopes Afghanistan might serve as a starting point for cooperation, as it did when Iran helped oust the Taliban after 9/11. Of course, relations between Washington and Tehran quickly deteriorated after President Bush included Iran on his "axis of evil" list. Obama says he's putting an end to the Bush policy of confrontation.

But even as it begins to engage Iran, the administration is trying to weaken the Islamic Republic's grip on the region. Clinton announced that she's sending emissaries to Syria. Damascus wants a peace deal with Israel that would include the return of the Golan Heights, and the United States and Israel want Syria to stop supporting the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in neighboring Lebanon. Meanwhile, Britain announced that it was considering talks with Hezbollah's political wing in an effort to nudge it away from violence and, apparently, from Iran.

On the main issue with Iran -- nuclear arms -- the U.S. is turning to Russia. The administration has argued that it will not need to build the European missile shield that Russia vehemently opposes if Russia helps prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. By that the administration means that Russia should change its position on the U.N. Security Council and agree to serious economic sanctions against Tehran if it does not agree to forgo nuclear ambitions.

Iran has yet to respond to the Afghanistan invitation, and Iranian leaders have sent mixed signals. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomed Obama's election, but last week Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized Obama for perpetuating a U.S. policy of "unconditional" support for Israel and for the "massacre" of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza war two months ago. He reiterated his support for "resistance movements" such as Hamas, and Clinton lashed back by accusing Tehran of interfering in Arab countries. Nonetheless, we think the administration is right to pursue dialogue with Tehran. We disagree with the adage that familiarity breeds contempt, and would say instead that communication builds confidence. There's already enough contempt.

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