January 12, 2009
In Interview, Obama Talks of ‘New Approach’ to Iran
By BRIAN KNOWLTON
WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama addressed some of the most delicate foreign policy issues over the weekend, confirming that he intended to pursue a clear policy of engagement with Iran and to press immediately for peace in the Middle East.
Speaking on the ABC News program “This Week,” Mr. Obama reiterated that he wanted to work directly with Iran — a country whose president has called for Israel’s destruction — to improve relations and halt a nuclear program that Tehran describes as peaceful, but that the West believes is not.
“We are going to have to take a new approach,” he told the program’s host, George Stephanopoulos. “My belief is that engagement is the place to start.”
Mr. Obama said he wanted to adopt “a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk” to the Iranians, while making it clear “that we also have certain expectations.”
The remarks suggested a clear departure from the often pointed and deprecatory speech that has prevailed between Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and President Bush.
Last year, President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel for specialized bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex, The New York Times reported on Sunday. Quoting senior American and foreign officials, the article said that the president told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons.
Speaking about the Israeli attacks in Gaza, Mr. Obama said he remained convinced that Israel had a clear right of self-defense. More broadly, he promised that after his inauguration on Jan. 20, his foreign policy team would become “immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process.”
Jeff Zeleny, David M. Herszenhorn and Peter Baker contributed reporting.
In a different story and post (Iran Gives Hamas Enthusiastic Support, but Discreetly, Just in Case), there are some interesting details that dovetail with this one.
While the fighting continues in Gaza and negotiations for a cease-fire take place in Egypt, officials in Iran are treading carefully because they, too, have a great deal at stake. Iran is trying to position itself as the regional superpower, while also trying to generate maximum leverage before expected talks with the incoming Obama administration.
Iran is seeking maximum leverage for use in the talks that President Obama will have the US engage in with Iran.
To achieve those goals, though, Iran needs Hamas to declare at least a moral victory in its war with Israel. Then, Israel and Washington’s Arab allies would be weakened, and without Iran’s having to get involved in battle.
Iran uses Hamas as its proxy to gain advantage without being seen with dirty hands.
Iran’s leaders are leery of siding publicly with Hamas because of the potential consequences of an Israeli victory. A Hamas defeat by Israel would deprive Iran not only of a valuable proxy force on the border with Israel but of a trump card to play with Washington, and it would further alienate it from the leadership of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
This is realpolitik. Further alienate Iran fromEgypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia?
“Iran wants to sit at the negotiating table with Obama with all the cards of the region in hand: Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, the relationship with Syria,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, an Iranian expert based in Cairo. “They are also being smart. They’re trying not to antagonize the U.S. very much, but with the Arabs they are going at it very hard, very roughly.”
[Of course, Mustafa el-Labbad has a blog.] All those cards would make Iran the region's pre-eminent power. And while seeking to not antagonize the US, it has been busy.
For months, even before Israel invaded Gaza to stop rocket fire, Iranian officials and their proxies had been viciously attacking Egyptian and Saudi leaders for not doing enough to end the Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza. But Iran does not function as a purely ideological state, and it does not operate from one center of power. When events started growing too hot, Ayatollah Khamenei stepped in and cooled talk of thousands of martyrs streaming to Gaza.
Iran’s relationship with Hamas is one of shared interests. By pedigree, the sides are unlikely allies, with Iran a Shiite theocracy and Hamas a fundamentalist Sunni organization. Hamas, for example, praises Saddam Hussein, while Iran views him as a psychotic killer.