Iran General NewsObama qualifies stance on Iran diplomacy

Obama qualifies stance on Iran diplomacy

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ImageWall Street Journal: Barack Obama, under attack from President Bush and John McCain for pledges to meet with Iran's leadership, has started to qualify his prior bold stance, setting new preconditions and qualifications.

The Wall Street Journal

By JAY SOLOMON

ImageWASHINGTON — Barack Obama, under attack from President Bush and John McCain for pledges to meet with Iran's leadership, has started to qualify his prior bold stance, setting new preconditions and qualifications.

At the same time, Sen. McCain's stand against talks with Tehran turns out to be more nuanced as well. Indeed, the two candidates' positions seem to be converging on what has become one of the most contentious issues in the early debates of the likely general-election candidates.

A centerpiece of Sen. Obama's foreign policy has been what he says is placing a greater emphasis on diplomacy than President Bush, including engaging Washington's adversaries. Speaking Friday in Miami, Sen. Obama told a Cuban-American audience: "It's time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike," including Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

The Illinois senator drew heat in July after pledging in a debate his willingness to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea during his first year in office, without preconditions.

The Democratic presidential front-runner framed his position as a sharp break from the administration's focus on isolating adversaries, which he said has only diminished U.S. influence globally. He said such dialogue with Washington's adversaries was central to America's hopes of extricating itself from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. Obama, his aides say, never specifically declared a desire for a one-on-one meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Sen. Obama didn't directly rule it out, either. In response to the query last summer about whether he would meet Iran's leader — unnamed — during his year in office, Sen. Obama replied: "I would."

His Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Sen. McCain have both portrayed Sen. Obama's pledge as evidence of a lack of foreign-policy experience — even naivete. President Bush this month in Israel took what was widely seen as a thinly veiled swipe at Sen. Obama by equating dialogue with governments like Iran's as the type of "appeasement" that gave rise to Nazi Germany.

In near-daily references over the past two weeks, Sen. McCain has painted Sen. Obama as willing to engage directly with Mr. Ahmadinejad, a leader who has openly called for Israel's destruction and questions the Holocaust.

"The President of the United States sitting down across the table from Ahmadinejad would increase his influence and his prestige…and would probably scare the daylights out of other countries in the region," Sen. McCain said Tuesday.

Even some foreign-policy analysts who have voiced support for Sen. Obama's overall approach toward Iran say a presidential meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad ahead of 2009 Iranian elections could undercut U.S. foreign-policy interests. They say such a summit could enhance Mr. Ahmadinejad's political standing and marginalize Iranian moderates competing in the Iranian vote.

Facing these criticisms, Sen. Obama and his advisers have moved to define more clearly the conditions under which he would meet Iranian leaders as president. They have regularly repeated in recent days that Sen. Obama wouldn't necessarily meet Mr. Ahmadinejad, noting he could be out of office next year. But they also have stressed that any meeting involving Sen. Obama and an Iranian leader would occur only after lower-level meetings at which the terms and issues of the engagement would be set.

"The point is that I wouldn't refuse to meet until they agree to every position that we want," Sen. Obama said on May 16. "But that doesn't mean we wouldn't have preparation…lower-level diplomatic contacts, having our diplomatic corps work through with Iranian counterparts, an agenda."

Some analysts question how different Sen. Obama's approach toward Iran would ultimately be from the Bush administration's. Despite President Bush's veiled swipe at Sen. Obama, Pentagon and State Department officials have held intermittent meetings in Baghdad with Iranian diplomats over the past year in a bid to find common ground on stabilizing Iraq.

Sen. McCain also has articulated in recent days a stance on Iran that sounds more similar to Sen. Obama's approach than the Arizona senator's most blistering sound bites would suggest. While ruling out his own direct meetings with Iranian leaders, barring a major shift in Iranian behavior, Sen. McCain said he would continue to support the types of lower-level contacts that the U.S. currently is pursuing with Iran.

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