With the new U.S. administration comfortably situated and setting political goals and policies, looming Iranian elections cast a long shadow over one of its thorniest issues: how to deal with the Islamic Republic.
"We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," U.S. President Barack Obama told adversaries of the U.S. during his inauguration speech, a statement that mirrored his campaign promises to try "aggressive personal diplomacy" with Iran.
In press conferences Monday and Tuesday, both Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed to unclench their fists a bit, perhaps paving the way for the first broad-based relations between the two countries since Iran’s Islamic Revolution exactly 30 years ago.
While listening to the two leaders speaking, dialogue seems almost inevitable, but that belies what is still a robust debate in policy circles in Washington with regards to exactly how and when to begin engagement.
What, for example, did Obama mean when he raised the idea of talking to Iran "in the coming months?" With Iranian presidential elections slated for June, a process with no reliable polling to predict an outcome, a U.S. choice of whether to begin the first steps of diplomacy before or after the results are known could have serious implications for any further engagement.
When, on Saturday, former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005) threw his hat in the ring against the incumbent Ahmadinejad, those questions were brought into laser-focus.
A cleric and former two-term leader who won overwhelmingly in his two previous bids for the highest office in the Republic (though secondary to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of the Islamic part of the nation’s moniker), Khatami’s presidency was characterized by his attempts at inclusion and dialogue.
His efforts, however, were undermined both by some of Iran’s hard-line clerical ruling class and the bellicose language of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who, only weeks after Iran’s robust cooperation early in the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, declared Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil." Khatami’s presidency ended with the once-popular reform movement largely demoralized by concerns about its efficacy.
Given his record, Khatami may be the most appealing candidate for potential U.S. interlocutors, but waiting to begin engagement on the hopes that he is elected could open him up to charges of being too cozy with the U.S.
"The last thing Khatami needs is to be considered America’s candidate in the race," wrote Iran expert Trita Parsi on the Huffington Post blog.
Conversely, engaging Iran under Ahmadinejad may be used to the sitting president’s advantage by claiming that he won concessions from the U.S. while Khatami’s conciliatory tone and tenure brought only disappointment.
But Parsi argues that even by engaging with Ahmadinejad in office, it may ease the road for Khatami if and when he wins office.
"[O]pponents to Ahmadinejad argue that they will have an easier time pursuing diplomacy with the U.S. if negotiations are initiated already under Ahmadinejad and the conservatives," wrote Parsi. "It will simply be more difficult for the conservatives to oppose and undermine U.S.-Iran talks if those talks began when a conservative held the presidency."
Former top Iran adviser in the National Security Council under Pres. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and Columbia University professor Gary Sick writes in the National Interest magazine that the U.S. ought to make small gestures towards diplomacy, but be cautious about getting too involved both in diplomacy and the Iranian elections.
"[A]ny overt attempt to skew the election will almost certainly fail and may backfire disastrously," wrote Sick, noting the unpredictability of Iranian elections. "[H]owever, we can be certain that whatever we do (and that can include doing nothing at all) will be noted, registered and interpreted probably overinterpreted in Tehran."
Sick, for his part, suggests that the U.S. undertake the beginnings of "changing [the U.S.’s] posture" by inviting, perhaps through Iraq and Afghanistan themselves, cooperation on the U.S. conflicts on either side of Iran noting that with both Iraqi and Afghan elections forthcoming, timely work is essential.
He also calls for "largely symbolic steps" such as reaffirming 1981’s Algiers Accords, which ended the Iran Hostage Crisis and contained a U.S. pledge of non-interference in Iranian affairs; paving the way for U.S. NGO’s to work in Iran; and pursuing a U.S. interests section in Tehran.
Otherwise, Sick recommend the U.S. lay low diplomatically while forming a grand strategy for dealing with Iran.
"Iran’s reaction [to these steps] would itself provide the most accurate and reliable guide for selecting and implementing a longer-term American strategy for the future," he wrote.
But not everyone is urging such caution with regards to the U.S.’s first diplomatic moves affecting the Iranian election. Writing from Iran in the New York Times, op-ed columnist Roger Cohen makes explicit his aims for quick, pre-election, though limited, engagement with Iran.
"The West’s strong interest lies in stopping another Ahmadinejad term. Given that Ahmadinejad thrives on confrontation, this isn’t what Obama should dish out," he wrote. "Before the election, Obama must declare that the U.S. does not seek regime change. [ ] Such measures would help Khatami or perhaps a conservative pragmatist [ ]."
Others still advocate a policy of robust engagement early on for a variety of reasons.
Former intelligence officer Col. Pat Lang writes in a National Journal forum that high-level "negotiations should begin very soon and should be conducted without preconditions." He alludes to the right-wing government likely to come to power in this week’s elections in Israel that will, absent a clear U.S. policy, pursue its own agenda and put pressure on the U.S. to adopt its tack.
In the same forum, Hillary Mann Leverett, a long-time State Department official who spent years across the table from Iranians, said that incremental, tactical engagement coupled with an overall isolationist strategy has hurt not helped U.S. interests, leading her to "think big." Indeed, she has been one of Washington’s strongest proponents of a so-called ‘grand bargain,’ which would be comprehensive in scope.
"If President Obama is serious about diplomatic engagement with Iran, he needs to establish a comprehensive strategic framework for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy at the outset," she wrote, "rather than waiting in vain for some measure of ‘trust’ to be established."
Still, with the elections months away, a grand strategy may even not be fully formulated until after Iranians go to the polls, said Ambassador James Dobbins, the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corporation and a former top-level, hot-spot diplomat.
Dobbins warned that the Obama administration should not "rush" into a grand engagement, and be cautious around the elections "because we’re not sure if we will be harmful or helpful."
He did, however, say the U.S. should take immediate steps to lift "prohibitions on U.S. diplomats talking to Iranians, [restrictions] which treat them differently than other countries who we don’t agree with."
"I think simply authorizing diplomats to talk to Iranians in the normal course of events won’t affect the Iranian elections," he said.