A Toe in the Water
'Direct diplomacy' with Iran and Syria starts small.

Monday, March 9, 2009

THE OBAMA administration's opening forays into foreign affairs have been as calibrated and cautious as its domestic policy has been bold. Last month President Obama laid out a strategy for Iraq that tracked more closely with that recommended by the military commanders appointed by President George W. Bush than with his own campaign promises. Now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has opened Mr. Obama's much-promised "direct diplomacy" with adversaries with a couple of low-level contacts with Syria and an invitation to Iran to join a multinational conference on Afghanistan. Ms. Clinton says that she is "testing the waters," and she has been appropriately guarded in her expectations. That's good: A bolder U.S. offer to either country would alarm U.S. allies in the region and probably be rejected.

During her first tour of the Middle East as secretary of state, Ms. Clinton got an earful from Arab rulers alarmed both by Iran's continued belligerence across the region and by the notion that a deal between Washington and Tehran might be in the works. "There's a great deal of concern about Iran in the entire region," she said after three days of talks; a senior State Department official said that Ms. Clinton had expressed doubt in one of her private meetings that Iran would respond to a U.S. offer of engagement. That was only logical, given the latest tirade of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called Israel "a cancerous tumor," rejected Mideast peace negotiations and said that Mr. Obama was following the same "crooked path" as Mr. Bush. Ms. Clinton's suggestion that Tehran participate in the Afghanistan conference came on a front where the two countries have collaborated in the past; Iran's initial response was positive.

The outreach to Syria seems more promising to many. Several former senior U.S. diplomats in the Middle East are saying that Bashar al-Assad's regime is eager to improve relations with the United States. Syria seeks an easing of U.S. economic sanctions and would also like to see U.S. mediation of peace talks with Israel. For its part, the administration wants Syria to curtail its material support for Hamas and Hezbollah; both the United States and Israel dream of rupturing Syria's alliance with Iran.

There are big and probably insurmountable obstacles to any such breakthrough. Mr. Assad heads a murderous regime; a United Nations tribunal was established last week to consider political murders in Lebanon that most likely were authored in Damascus. Mr. Assad continues to seek hegemony over Lebanon, something that the United States should not countenance. Israel's next government will probably be led by Binyamin Netanyahu, who promised immediately before his election that he would not return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

Yet the Obama administration, Syria and Israel may all benefit by engaging even in negotiations that go nowhere. The appearance of better relations with the United States may attract more European investment and diplomatic support for Syria; it may also inject an irritant into relations between Syria and Iran. Mr. Netanyahu's unwillingness to discuss Palestinian statehood may draw him toward talks with Syria despite his pledges. Such modest movement may be all Mr. Obama can hope for from "direct diplomacy," at least in the short term.

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