Obama Faces Long Odds on Iran Diplomacy

The president is trying to reach out to Iran, but it's hard to figure out what the regime really wants.

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The Obama administration appears determined to reach out to Iran in hopes of finding a deal that will ensure the Islamic republic does not turn its growing nuclear know-how into a crisis-provoking arsenal of bombs. But as the White House is learning, reading the tea leaves on where Iran is headed will be exceedingly difficult. It will be even harder to prevent politically charged disputes on other issues from disrupting any future nuclear talks.

Distractions last week included Tehran's continued jailing of a young Iranian-American journalist and a blistering speech at a United Nations conference by hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared Israel "the most cruel and repressive racist regime." The verbal attack by Ahmadinejad, who has predicted that Israel will be wiped off the map and openly questioned whether the Holocaust happened, led European diplomats to walk out of the session.

In Washington, President Obama called the comments part of a pattern of "appalling" statements and said they are "harmful" to overcoming the three-decade-long U.S. estrangement from Iran. But he paired his criticism with a call for staying with "tough, direct diplomacy" that harbors "no illusions." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told skeptical lawmakers that a U.S.-led diplomatic push on Iran, even if it fails or stalls, will give Washington "credibility and influence with a number of nations" to pressure Iran with "crippling" sanctions.

Also clouding the picture is the imprisonment of Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old radio journalist from Fargo, N.D., who was working on a book in Tehran. She was sentenced to eight years in jail after being convicted in a closed-door, 15-minute trial on charges that friends and U.S. officials described as manufactured. The State Department says a positive step by Iranian authorities, such as Saberi's release, would help create goodwill. Some analysts believe that the moves against her stem from hard-line judicial officials who oppose a deal with the United States or from a desire to claim a bargaining chip in talks with the United States and other nations that may begin within weeks.

Israel is a factor in Obama's Iran strategy, too. Israel has hinted at airstrikes against Iranian nuclear targets if diplomacy fails, and the new Likud-led government of Binyamin Netanyahu is pressing Obama to get results on Iran within months.

Obama this month decided that U.S. diplomats would join with counterparts from five other countries in direct talks with Iran on the nuclear standoff and other issues, marking a sharp break with Bush administration practice. That group is known as the P-5 plus 1: the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia) plus Germany.

There have been other signs of the priority Obama is placing on a new Iran policy. He made a video message to Iranians on their holiday of Nowruz in which he appealed for a "new beginning" in relations, lauded Iranian culture, and addressed the government by its official name, "the Islamic Republic of Iran." And he approved an invitation to Iran to join a recent conference on Afghanistan, where diplomats from the two adversaries met and talked.

U.S. officials have also been consulting with other nations in the P-5 plus 1 about modifying the demand that Iran completely suspend its uranium enrichment and other nuclear fuel work before negotiations can start. U.S. officials have been tightlipped about the reconsideration, and they say suspension remains the ultimate goal. Diplomats are searching for a nuanced formula that could draw Tehran back into nuclear negotiations.

The group has invited Iran to new talks. As it awaits a reply, there are some potentially positive signals from Tehran. Ahmadinejad says Iran is readying new proposals on the nuclear impasse, and he says that "circumstances have changed," apparently an allusion to Obama and the new U.S. outreach. Iran last week also said it would welcome "constructive" talks based on mutual respect. Separately, Ahmadinejad called on Iranian judicial officials to allow Saberi to mount a full defense, a move some interpret as a prelude to a gesture in the form of her early release.