In the realm of foreign affairs, the two wars that America is fighting, in Iraq and Afghanistan, may have higher priority for President Obama than the war it isn't fighting, namely, with Iran. But the battle lines are being drawn already, on all sides of the Iran issue.
During the campaign, Obama stated repeatedly that he is prepared for unconditional, but well "prepared," talks with Tehran. Yesterday, seizing the moment, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote a meandering open letter to Obama, which included the following, according to the New York Times translation:
"I congratulate you for attracting the majority of votes in the election. As you know, opportunities that are bestowed upon humans are short lived.
"People in the world expect war-oriented policies, occupation, bullying, deception and intimidation of nations and imposing discriminatory policies on them and international affairs, which have evoked hatred toward American leaders, to be replaced by ones advocating justice, respect for human rights, friendship and noninterference in other countries' affairs.
"They also want the US intervention to be limited to its borders, especially in the sensitive region of the Middle East. It is expected to reverse the unfair attitude of the past 60 years to restore the rights of people in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan."
The Post translation, cited here, provides a much fuller sense of the religious-themed rhetoric of Ahmadinejad's letter, such as:
"If steps are taken in the path of righteousness, toward the goal of carrying out the teachings of the holy prophets, it is hoped that almighty God will help and that the enormous damage done in the past will be somewhat diminished."
Still the letter is clearly a serious effort by Iran to reach out to Obama, in expectation that the new president will open a dialogue with Tehran. "The great civilization-building and justice-seeking nation of Iran would welcome major, fair and real changes, in policies and actions, especially in this region," wrote Ahmadinejad.
On the other hand, in a direct challenge to Obama, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that the US and Israel "could have differences of opinion" on Iran. Speaking on Radio Israel, she warned the president-elect against dialogue with Iran, suggesting that it might be construed as a sign of weakness:
"I think that dialogue at this time is liable to send a message of weakness. What the United States or Europe intends is not always interpreted that way in the Arab world. I think that a situation of early dialogue at a time when it seems to Iran that the world is giving up on sanctions can be problematic."
A whole panoply of hawkish and pro-Israeli thinktanks and lobbies is gearing up to underscore Livni's warning, from AIPAC to the newly formed group, United Against Nuclear Iran, to a panel yesterday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a leading pro-Israeli research group.
Speaking on the panel, Patrick Clawson, WINEP's top Iran-Iraq watcher, warned that a US-Iran dialogue could be highly dangerous. "What's wrong with trying? It can explode in our face." To prove his point, he cited the 1979 meeting in Algiers between Zbigniew Brzezinski and Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan of Iran, which was shortly followed by the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, and the mid-1980s Iran-contra effort. Those efforts represent two strikes, Clawson said, and a new dialogue would be a "wonderful opportunity to have a third strike." Talking to Iran would probably fuel the suspicions of radicals inside Iran's ruling elite and, "paradoxically, simultaneously" would undermine Iranian reformers.
Still, Clawson said, talking to Iran is the only option. "It's essential. I think we have to do it." But he went on to say that the only reason to talk to Iran is to convince US public opinion and the leaders of other countries, especially our allies, that we have given the idea of talking to Iran the old college try. "What we've got to do is to show the world that we're making a big deal of engaging the Iranians," he said. He doesn't expect results. "Moderates in Iran? Instead of Ahmadinejad, who spits in your eye, the moderates are the people who blow smoke in your eyes." He concluded: "Our prime target with these offers [to talk] is not Iran. Our prime target is American public opinion and world public opinion."
That's a version of Vice President Cheney's old argument that before you can attack a country, like Iraq in 2003, you have to make a pretense of diplomacy, as the United States did by pretending to go to the UN in advance of the March, 2003, war. Cheney reiterated this argument, as did many neoconservatives, about Iran more recently. For those who believe that going to war with Iran is the only solution to deal with Iran's nuclear enrichment program, it's important, first, to talk.
Unfortunately for the neocons, AIPAC, and WINEP, not only are they not running the show anymore, as they did in the 2001-2004 Bush administration, but they're not even getting a seat at the table in the Obama administration. Some key Democratic hawks are angling for an in, including Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke. Ross, who's ensconced at WINEP, was an advisor on Middle East policy to Obama, but it's unclear how close he is to the inner circle, and so far he hasn't been mentioned for an administration post, but I wouldn't count him out. Holbrooke, a Hillary Clinton supporter, was shut out of Obamaland, but lately he is using his ties to Joe the Biden to try to get back into the good graces of the Obama team. Still, he isn't often mentioned as a candidate for an important job in the new regime.
Speaking on the same panel as Clawson, Rob Satloff, the executive director of WINEP, claimed that several of Obama's top advisers, including Susan Rice, Tony Lake, and Richard Danzig, have all gone on record supporting what Satloff described a "preventive" measures against Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. In June, 2008, Lake and Rice took part in a WINEP-sponsored Presidential Task Force that issued a report called "Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen U.S.-Israel Cooperation on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge." That paper had a hawkish tone that suggested that the US and Israel must work closely together to deal with the Iranian threat, and it criticized those strategists who believe that the United States may ultimately have to reconcile itself to the notion of a nuclear-armed Israel. While the report didn't call for a military attack on Iran, it did portray Iran's nuclear research in the most dire light.
According to Satloff, at a WINEP event more recently, Danzig -- who is a candidate for a top post at the Defense Department -- also endorsed a "preventive" approach, and Satloff added that "Obama's advisers have, almost across the board," all done so.
But neither Lake nor Rice nor Danzig has gone as far as various neocon outlets, WINEP, or AIPAC in emphasizing the need to consider using military force. And though Obama has said repeatedly that he won't rule out the use of force, the entire Obama team seems committed to the negotiations approach that Livni and Clawson warn against.