TOPICS : America’s new approach on Iran

In the past 30 years, the United States has pondered regime change, military action, and containment as policies toward Iran. None have proved effective. Now Barack Obama is going to try engagement. In a weekend interview, he pledged a “new approach.” We should not get too starry-eyed about this. President-elect Obama will not soon sip tea in Tehran with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and come away with his pledges to stop aiding terrorists, abandon its nuclear weapons program, and recognise Israel.

If the political stars align, what we might see is the beginning of considerably lower-level

diplomatic engagement, perhaps the establishment of a US diplomatic post in Tehran, and some people-to-people, cultural, and sporting exchanges.

Obama should remember, as Middle East expert Fouad Ajami has written, that the Iranian theocrats are “a skilled and crafty breed.” He should heed the warnings in a new Brookings Institution/Council on Foreign Relations report that the “process of engaging Iran will be protracted, arduous, and subject to shifts in Iran’s internal dynamics” and does not preclude “tension or even conflict.”

As it seeks to establish its empire in the Middle East, Iran has a finger in every major trouble spot in the region. It counsels Syria, funds Hamas and Hezbollah, influences Iraq, threatens Israel, and could even, if it chose, be helpful in Afghanistan. Those who deem it heresy for the US to talk to its enemies should remember that the outgoing President Bush has already started a low-level dialogue with Iran.

Seasoned statesmen know when and where to begin difficult negotiations. They do not let their presidents go face to face with foreign counterparts until there are reasonable expectations of civility and progress. Before there is any hint of meetings at the presidential level, Obama should seek to elevate the level of discourse through some of the tough envoys. President Ahmadinejad did send Obama a rare congratulatory letter upon his election. There are signs of political unrest in Iran. Falling oil prices have wrought havoc with the economy.

Elections are due in June, and Mohammad Khatami, a leading reformist who earlier served

two terms as president, is threatening to run against Ahmadinejad. This could be the time for Tehran to test a new American administration with its price for a more cooperative Iran. Obama could offer relief from current sanctions. There could be unfreezing of blocked Iranian assets. There could be offers of economic cooperation.

There could be diplomatic recognition. There could be cultural and sporting exchanges. The US admitted the Iranian national basketball team last year for games in Texas and Utah. Obama campaigned on a platform of “change.” It may now be time to see whether there is any change in US relations with a country that has widespread ability to spread war or peace in the region. — The Christian Science Monitor