On Iran, an Apostle of Patience

By David Ignatius
Thursday, February 26, 2009

If you ask White House officials whom President Obama listens to about Iran, they mention an interesting name -- Lee Hamilton, the former congressman from Indiana who co-chaired the 2006 Iraq Study Group that urged engagement with the Iranian regime.

So I called Hamilton this week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, where he serves as president, to ask for his thoughts about strategic dialogue with Tehran. He gave some interesting answers that match (not coincidentally, I suspect) what you hear from senior Obama administration officials. Though Hamilton wouldn't discuss his two meetings with the president since the inauguration, his private advice probably tracks what he told me on the record.

Hamilton cautioned against expecting any quick breakthroughs. He recommended a patient process of engagement that would be analogous to long-term diplomacy with the Soviet Union. "Those of us who favor dialogue with the Iranians have to be clear that success will not come quickly," he said. "You'll have to have direct, sustained engagement over a long period of time."

Administration officials echo this need for a careful, low-key approach to Iran. The administration has begun an interagency strategic review of Iran policy (they love "reviews," this Obama team). Until this is done, says a White House official, "it's premature to talk about talks, or pre-talks, or emissaries." (Point taken. I wrote recently that former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski would be good emissaries if talks ripened. Add Hamilton to that list.) The starting points for U.S.-Iran discussions, Hamilton said, would be to "state our respect for the Iranian people, renounce regime change as an instrument of U.S. policy, seek opportunities for a range of dialogue across a range of issues, and acknowledge Iran's security concerns and its right to civilian nuclear power." He said Obama has already signaled that he wants such a conversation, without preconditions.

Asked how contacts might begin, Hamilton said the first step might be back channel, "secret discussions by someone authorized by the president." These initial private talks could set the agenda and assure the Iranians that the United States wants to discuss an array of issues -- and not just Afghanistan or Iraq or nuclear weapons.

"You don't start by Obama calling [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad or the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]," Hamilton said. "You have to work toward an agenda, and that means contacts have to begin at a lower level."

A European who speaks regularly with the Iranian government said that Tehran, too, wants to take its time. He said Iran seeks a broad discussion, not just selected items. This official recommended a "preparatory, confidential meeting to say what are the modalities, agendas, procedures, confidence-building measures."

Hamilton has a special perspective. In addition to 34 years in Congress and his role as co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, he's the only American who has actually had a successful mediation with Iran's supreme leader. After Haleh Esfandiari of the Wilson Center was arrested in Tehran in May 2007, Hamilton sent a careful letter, couched largely in religious terms, to Khamenei. The leader responded positively, and Esfandiari was released from prison.

The administration official who oversees the Iran file is William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. Although Dennis Ross will take a broad strategic look at the region in his new post of State Department adviser, senior officials stress that Burns is the address for Iran policy.

Administration officials don't want to talk about "carrots and sticks," a favorite Bush formulation that the Iranians disliked. But Obama has the same task of balancing positive and negative elements: The administration wants talks, but if Iran continues to reject Security Council demands for controls on its nuclear program, Obama will seek much tougher sanctions.

Obama is working hard to woo Russia as an ally in the diplomatic dance with Iran. When Burns visited Moscow two weeks ago, he brought the message that if Russian pressure can persuade Iran to give up nuclear weapons, that could remove the rationale for U.S. missile defense installations in Eastern Europe. The Russians were "intrigued" but noncommittal, according to one official.

Hamilton sums up the core problem by saying that Obama has three choices in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program: Accept the status quo and the inevitability that Iran will get the bomb, launch a military strike to stop it, or try diplomacy. The last is the "preferred option," he says, but "progress toward agreement will be exceedingly difficult."

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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