Will Clinton's Overture Get Iran to Cooperate?

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(L to R) Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty ; Aude Guerrucci / Pool / Getty

(L to R) Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and US President Barack Obama.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement that Iran would be invited to a summit on Afghanistan has been greeted as a possible icebreaker in the tense relationship between Washington and Tehran. Iran is weighing whether to accept the invitation, its foreign minister said Friday, and will deliver its response next month. The overture should be consistent with the new Washington ethos: seeking Iran's cooperation on stabilizing Afghanistan — a goal both sides desire — can help end the nuclear standoff between the two countries.

But Tehran will also consider the invitation in light of other U.S. gestures over the past week, gestures that Iran has deemed hostile. These include the revelation that President Obama in January reached out to Russia, dangling the possibility of shelving U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic if Moscow will cooperate in squelching the potential threat from Iran that the missile shield would ostensibly counter. Secretary Clinton, touring Israel and Arab countries, proclaimed Iran the primary menace to the region, and sent envoys for talks "on a number of issues" with Tehran's key Arab ally, Syria — a move read in Tehran as part of an effort to isolate Iran. There's also a sense among the Iranians that Tehran has been down the road of cooperation with Washington on Afghanistan before (over the U.S. invasion at the end of 2001 and the establishment of the Karzai government) and all they got for their troubles was inclusion in President Bush's "Axis of Evil." (See pictures of the legacy of Iran's revolution)

Iran's former ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, suggested in the Financial Times on Thursday that Tehran's cooperation, even on issues of mutual interest such as stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, will be dependent on an overall change in relations with Washington. "In Iran," he wrote, "there is no willingness to co-operate with the U.S. without being paid back... Today, the two sides need a grand bargain." He warned that from Iran's perspective, "U.S. efforts to convince other nations to go along with its policies against Iran on one hand while pursuing the track of negotiations on the other means a continuation of the attitudes of George W. Bush, but with new words."

The Obama Administration remains engaged in an Iran policy overview, however, precisely because of the failure of the policy inherited from the Bush Administration. Brandishing the "stick" of economic sanctions and the threat of military action, together with the "carrot" of economic incentives, has failed to deter Iran from making steady progress in developing its capacity to enrich uranium, which would give it a key building block for any attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

While on the campaign trail, Obama had promised to pursue "tough, direct diplomacy with Iran" — in contrast to President Bush's refusal to talk directly to Iran until it suspended uranium enrichment. But the Obama team has yet to make clear how and when it will engage Iran, and most importantly, what it will put on the table. If the two sides simply repeat, face-to-face, the positions they've communicated to one another through intermediaries, the outcome is unlikely to be any different. Iran has not failed to understand what's on offer from the U.S. and its allies; it has refused to accept the deal.

Some in the Obama Administration insist that talking to Iran must be tied to continuing — and ratcheting up — the existing coercive strategy. "Penalties, more than inducements, are the key to altering the Iranian position," according to Dennis Ross, recently named as Secretary Clinton's top adviser on Iran. He believes that Iran's economic woes and falling oil prices make it increasingly vulnerable to outside pressure. In his past writings, Ross outlined a view of negotiations that would involve putting a final offer of economic and political incentives directly to Iran, tied to a threat of significantly harsher consequences if Tehran fails to end its uranium enrichment program within a short and defined time frame. And if Tehran fails to heed this ultimatum then the talks will have served the purpose of showing reluctant allies that Washington was prepared to go the extra mile for a diplomatic solution, before seeking their support for escalating pressure on Iran. Secretary Clinton has already been quoted, in press reports from Egypt earlier this week, as saying it was "very doubtful" that Iran would relent.

Other voices in Washington are counseling a more patient view on negotiations, based on a less alarmist view of Iran's nuclear progress and the belief that a diplomatic strategy to resolve the nuclear standoff will require tackling the full gamut of issues that imperil relations between the two countries. It is the outcome of the Administration's internal debate on how to tackle Iran that will likely determine Tehran's response to Clinton's opening gambit.