Iran Warily Eyes U.S. Presidential Contenders Obama and McCain

But Tehran might push for a bargain with the Bush administration in its final months.

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Iran is watching the presidential election contest between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama very closely. Even with the possibility of an advance toward negotiations at a key meeting in Geneva this weekend, a new occupant of the White House means new uncertainties for Tehran.

A President John McCain, for example, might seek to intensify pressure on the Iranians to abandon their nuclear weapons ambitions. In doing so, however, he could end up helping to rally Iranian hard-liners who feed on anti-Americanism, says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A President Barack Obama, on the other hand, could create a different kind of challenge for the hard-liners: They might find their uncompromising stand on their cherished nuclear program hard to maintain. An Obama administration pushing for direct nuclear talks could intensify international—and domestic—pressure on those Iranian conservatives who oppose any moderation of their nuclear ambitions.

Viewed from Tehran, the Bush administration in its latter days may have a special incentive to compromise in search of a legacy-building foreign policy achievement. Says Sadjadpour, the Iranians "realize that their hand is strong right now, and they want to see what they can get in return." Americans are not alone in thinking that strength is the better position from which to bargain.

The uncertainties of next year could produce some unexpected opportunities this year. Some Iranian officials might see an advantage to negotiating with a lame-duck Bush administration rather than waiting for whoever follows him. "They recognize that the U.S. political landscape in six months will look very different," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of Treacherous Alliance—The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States. "It's a clever time for them to be trying things."

The Bush administration might also be willing to try things. Britain's Guardian newspaper is reporting that the United States intends in the next month to announce a plan to open a U.S.-staffed diplomatic interests section in Tehran. It would be the first U.S. diplomatic facility in the Iranian capital since the 1979 Iranian revolution.