U.S. takes small steps in ties with Iran

By Sue Pleming – Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration is taking tentative steps to turn around caustic U.S. relations with Tehran but experts expect a bumpy, unpredictable ride to reverse three decades of hostility and mistrust.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to join Iran at an international conference on Afghanistan in the Hague on Tuesday, following through on a promise by President Barack Obama to deal with Tehran on issues of mutual concern.

No substantive talks are planned between Clinton and the Iranian envoy at the meeting, but U.S. officials hope any encounters they have will set a positive tone as Obama adjusts the isolation policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

“This is not a Nixon goes to China moment,” said Iran expert Joe Cirincione, referring to former President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 which broke two decades of silence between the two nations.

“You will have a series of incremental steps — small pieces that put together the mosaic of a new relationship,” added Cirincione, who heads the Ploughshares Fund, a grant-making foundation focused on nuclear issues.

Obama made early gestures to Iran in his January inaugural address and last week released a video message to the Iranian regime and its people, urging a new beginning.

Diplomats and U.S. officials, none of whom would speak on the record, said Obama was also considering a personal letter to Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but no decision had been made yet on the content or when to send it.

JUNE ELECTIONS

Iran has elections in June and there has been a spirited debate over whether any major U.S. overture before then could backfire and boost the chances of hard-line leader President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There is also a fear that Iran will publicly rebuff any major initiatives and embarrass the Obama administration.

So far, Iran has given a guarded response, with Khamenei telling the United States to change its own behavior by lifting “oppressive sanctions” and speaking of Iranian assets frozen in the United States as well as U.S. backing of Israel, which Tehran does not recognize.

Clinton has made clear the United States will continue to pile on sanctions as long as Iran refuses to give up a nuclear program that the West suspects is aimed at building an atomic bomb. Iran says it is to generate electricity.

Iran also wants strong signs the United States is not interested in regime change in Tehran, as it did in Iraq with the 2003 invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein.

The trick is to balance pressure with incentives and get the right mix to convince Iran to change its behavior, and this is what the ongoing review is trying to work out.

The Bush administration said repeatedly that military action was on the table and while Clinton and others have made clear “all options are open,” the rhetoric has softened.

“From the start of his administration, President Obama has said it is very important to use all the tools available, especially diplomacy, in our relations with Iran,” said State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid.

MORE CONTACTS

One change in U.S. policy is likely to be a relaxation of restrictions on contacts between U.S. and Iranian diplomats. Previously “substantial” talks between U.S. diplomats and their Iranian counterparts had to be cleared first.

The hope is that such conversations will help the United States establish the best way of dealing with Iran and overcome decades of mistrust.

“I think these kinds of discussions can yield information on who we should be talking to and how we should be handling a dialogue,” said Jim Dobbins of the RAND Corporation.

The Bush administration was looking into opening up a low-level diplomatic office in Tehran, but diplomats and officials say this is off the table for now until Washington has established Iran’s views on such a move.

Aside from mutual mistrust, there is domestic skepticism on both sides, with Obama facing some resistance in Congress and from conservative pundits who see engagement as fruitless.rmide

“I don’t think there is any meaningful way to engage with the government of Iran,” said Joshua Muravchik, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute.

But Cirincione disagreed: “Because you want a dialogue with Iran does not mean you are a sucker.”

Obama boasted this week of his persistence, a skill needed in abundance as his goal of changing U.S.-Iran ties could be derailed by incidents ranging from a minor skirmish in Gulf waters to Iran’s nuclear efforts.

“It has been a three decade-long estrangement. It will not be resolved in one or two steps,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

My take on this is………..how do you have a rational dialogue with people who vowed your death? How can you have a political relationship with people who believe that the have to start a worldwide transgression so you would attack them for their “savior” to return and they can annihilate you and dominate the entire world in a Islamic paradise? In fact, they have said, not too long ago, If and when they acquire atomic weapons, they would detonate them on Washington, D.C. and Tel Aviv.

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