Between the financial crisis, bankruptcy in the US auto industry, and terrorism in Mumbai, the television sets in President-elect Barack Obama's transition office in Chicago must be flickering with images from a host of crisis spots these days.
Amidst it all, the news from Vienna could easily be missed: According to information from the International Atomic Energy Commission, Iran now has access to more than 630 kilograms of slightly enriched uranium, is building more and more centrifuges for enrichment, and is barely cooperating with inspectors. A successful nuclear test from Tehran is imaginable within a year, the nuclear watchdog warns.
Obama hasn't commented on the grim news yet. But he doesn't have much time. "It is becoming increasingly urgent to find a new diplomatic pathway to Iran," says Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to Israel who now serves on the board of the American Iranian Council. Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton's former envoy to the Middle East, goes further: "For the Obama administration there is no greater foreign policy challenge."
What exactly a future Iran strategy would look like is one of the most-discussed foreign policy questions in Washington. For eight years, the US's approach has been largely clear. Relations have been on ice, with ever-widening rumors of a planned military assault on Iran's nuclear plants. As John McCain, the Republican applicant for George Bush's job jocularly sang: "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."
Nevertheless, Iran has proceeded with its atomic plans so effectively that their success now seems virtually unstoppable. "If Iran wants to, it will soon become a nuclear power. Bush has resigned himself to that," a Republican close to the private circle around the President told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Even a possible first strike from Israel is now out the question in the White House -- although, according to Haaretz, Israel's national security council wants to present a paper in December with plans for attacking Iran.
An Attack Won't Solve the Problem
The Israelis appear to be departing from their hard-line stance. Before Obama's election, many of the country's leading politicians dubbed Obama's proposal to meet with Iran without preconditions as "appeasement." Now, the head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, Amos Yadlin, says that such an approach would "not necessarily be negative."
Yadlin knows a military assault might delay Iran's atomic development, but it wouldn't bring it to a standstill. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, wrote in Newsweek, "a military strike may buy some time, but it won't solve the problem. It will, however, lead to Iranian retaliation against US personnel and interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much higher oil prices -- the last thing the world needs, given the financial crisis."
One thing is clear: A nuclear Iran could not only further destabilize the Middle East, it could also trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.
So how should the new US administration proceed? "We should be prepared to have face-to-face talks with the Iranians, without preconditions. In general, it is wiser to see negotiations not as a reward but as a tool of national security," argues Haass. In the meantime, even the Bush administration has negotiated with Iran -- after the Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, when Tehran was helping with the intervention in Afghanistan. At the end of his time in office, even Bush has also considered reopening diplomatic contact. It's a decision that Obama will have to make now.
Even so, the Bush administration has never wanted to back away from its demand for regime change in Tehran -- and it remains fixated on the country's provocative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom many Iran experts do not consider to be the true power-holder.
Contemplating a 'Grand Bargain'
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst Karim Sadjadpour recommended a more prudent approach on National Public Radio (NPR): "If we immediately approach Iran and give them ultimatums on the nuclear issue and on Israel, the likelihood is that we'll forsake building confidence with them and bringing about more cooperative Iranian behavior on the other issues."
After all, the two countries share common interests: hoping for stability in Iraq and worrying about a newly-strengthened Taliban in Afghanistan. Among the Iranian people, sympathy for America is great.
So is a "grand bargain" between Tehran and Washington, whereby Iran would halt its nuclear plans in exchange for consideration of its security interests, concievable? Pickering has sketched some of the possible components: a renunciation from Washington of the idea of toppling the Iranian regime, the integration of Tehran into a security architecture for the region and comprehensive offers of economic cooperation.
Still, such a rapprochement could take years. The level of trust between the two countries, which haven't had normal diplomatic relations since 1979, is practically nonexistent. Even Iran experts in Washington puzzle over who really speaks for the regime in Tehran -- and whether Iran might secretly nurture the hope of soon being able to control the region, given America's weakness. Moreover, such a rapprochement might well inspire worry in America's close ally Israel -- though Hillary Clinton, the designated Secretary of State, ought to be able to help clear those worries away. Her support for Israel is beyond doubt. In the primary with Obama she had condemned his readiness to negotiate with Iran as naïve.
Europe Can Help With New Initiatives
Europeans can also help with such a rapprochement. Through the "Group of Six" -- which consists of the US, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, and Germany -- they have already made offers of cooperation to Iran and have instituted a smarter system of sanctions. Admittedly, implementation has been incomplete so far. "Nevertheless, it's important for the Americans not to simply sideline these negotiations," Laurie Dundon, an ex-staffer for Madeleine Albright who now works at the Bertelsmann Foundation, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
According to Dundon, Europe can help with new initiatives. For instance, with the project of an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. Washington has been striving for this for some time. Condoleezza Rice has met with her Syrian counterparts. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has travelled to Damascus. In the long run, US politicians hope that could to drive a wedge in the close relationship between Tehran and Damascus.
Maybe that's why Iran's power players seem to be all ears these days. After Obama's election victory, Ahmadinejad immediately sent him congratulations. Tehran will also convene a "special conference" to debate the triumph of the Democrats and its impact on relations between Tehran and Washington. The Iranian Foreign Ministry is making no secret of its wish for a fundamental change in the relationship -- and even points to Obama's election slogan, "Yes we can."