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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Analysis: Talking to Tehran

Council on Foreign Relations

December 17, 2008
Author: Greg Bruno

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama made talking to Tehran a feature of his foreign policy. Touting "tough, direct presidential diplomacy" to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, Obama vowed during his campaign to engage "without preconditions." But the Iranian response since election day has been more reticent than receptive. After a brief congratulatory letter from the Iranian president, the country's foreign ministry spokesman, Hasan Qashqavi, denounced America's "carrot-and-stick policy" on nuclear issues as "unacceptable and failed" (AP). State-run news outlets have kept up the criticism (IRNA) in the weeks since.

Obama's post-election interviews (NBC) make clear that after eight years of avoiding direct diplomacy, the United States is ready to talk with Iran's ruling mullahs. But whether Iran will listen to what Washington is pitching is another matter. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that "successful engagement with Iran will require a direct channel of communication" with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, no small task given the Iranian regime's historic resentment of American policies. Yet as George Mason University scholar Jack Goldstone writes in a Dar al-Hayat, "Obama must not only signal his willingness to talk, but also a willingness to change U.S. policies." There is no shortage of opinion on what those policies should be.

CFR's Ray Takeyh, with Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution, argues that Washington must "launch a comprehensive diplomatic initiative" that delinks the nuclear question (PDF) from the broader Iran policy playbook. Bilateral talks on Persian Gulf security, for instance, can proceed without uranium enrichment on the table, they suggest. Joshua Muravchik of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, meanwhile, places the onus on Iran's leaders (Daily Star). Muravchik argues Tehran must relinquish "its ambitions for regional dominance and global revolution" before reconciliation is possible.

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Copyright 2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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