Obama pledges new tack on Iran

President-elect's overtures to Tehran, which he calls one of biggest challenges of his administration, are certain to displease Israel.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, right, welcomes Dennis Ross, the US State Department's Coordinator for Peace Process, on his arrival for a meeting at Arafat's office in Gaza City Monday December 30, 1996. Ross met with Arafat after his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu the Israeli Prime Minister, in an effort to salvage flagging peace talks. The talks have deadlocked over a long delayed Israeli troopn redeployment from the West Bank city of Hebron. (Ap Photo/Mohammed Rawas)
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Barack Obama, the US president-elect, has renewed a pledge to engage Iran swiftly in a new approach to curb Tehran's nuclear quest that he portrayed as one of the "biggest challenges" facing his administration. His remarks, made in an interview with a US television network yesterday, will offer some reassurance to those in Tehran and Washington hoping for an improved relationship between the superpower and the strategically important Islamic republic.

That scenario is unlikely to please Israel, which is striving to present its onslaught against a vastly outgunned Hamas in the Gaza Strip as a proxy war against Iran, which is supposedly committed to the destruction of the state. Advocates of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran were dismayed by credible reports in recent days that Mr Obama is ready to make Dennis Ross his main point man on Iran. Although Mr Ross is a highly experienced diplomat, his critics say he is too close to Israel and hawkish on Iran, a bewilderingly complex country of which he has little experience. Similar misgivings apply to Rahm Emanuel, Mr Obama's chief of staff, and to Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state.

Mr Obama acknowledged that "Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges" and warned that a nuclear-armed Iran "could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East". He also expressed concern about Iran's support for Hizbollah and Hamas. But he promised: "We are going to have to take a new approach. And I've outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start." He would make clear "that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people, but that we also have certain expectations in terms of how an international actor behaves".

Mr Obama had raised hopes of better relations early during his election campaign by promising to break with George W Bush's policy of not talking to Iran until it suspended uranium enrichment. But following his presidential victory, Mr Obama served notice he would be no pushover, declaring: "Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable. We have to mount an international effort to prevent that happening."

His words yesterday signal a different approach to that supported by Mr Ross, who apparently has been offered a new state department post designed to manage Washington's relationship with Iran. But the suggestion that Mr Ross will be an exalted Middle East super-envoy with a defining say on Iran policy may be fanciful. That he had secured such a post came in a leaked internal memo between members of a pro-Israeli Washington think tank for which Mr Ross works.

Instead, it is likely Mr Ross will be one of a "team of [state department] equals" advising Mr Obama on Iran, according to a blog by Jim Lobe, a Washington-based expert on US foreign policy. Mr Ross put his name to a bipartisan report in November that urged Mr Obama to beef up the US's military presence in the Gulf to strengthen Washington's negotiating hand immediately on taking office. If muscular diplomacy failed, the United States would then be primed for military action "as a last resort", the report said.

"Ross is in lockstep with the Bush administration on Iran - including ritual recitation of neo-conservative talking points on Iran's nuclear programme. He is not likely to be trusted or welcomed by Iranian officials," said Professor William Beeman, an Iran expert at the University of Minnesota. Mr Ross is a veteran of the Arab-Israeli conflict, having led US peace efforts in the Middle East peace efforts for both Presidents Bill Clinton and George HW Bush.

He played a leading role in an interim peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in 1995, worked on the failed effort to arrange peace between Israel and Syria and the ultimately unsuccessful Camp David talks between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000. Palestinians regarded Mr Ross as pro-Israeli in peace talks - a reputation he shares among Iranian officials. Press TV, Iran's English language satellite channel, has described him as a "notorious Israel-firster".

Henry Precht, a retired US diplomat who headed the state department's Iran desk during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, suspects that Mr Obama will be loath to upset Israel by pressing it simultaneously on two issues. "If he wants to appear to be doing something un-Bush-like on the Arab-Israeli front and working seriously for land for peace, he will have to forgo any real and positive change on the Iran front," he said in an interview.

"Dennis Ross will do nicely in holding that front stable." Putting Iran "in the ice box" might also appeal to Washington because "progress in any conceivable event will come very slowly". mtheodoulou@thenational.ae