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Is Obama's Mideast Diplomatic Drama Ready to Open?

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Obama administration is preparing a broad stage for Middle East diplomacy stretching from the Palestinians to Syria to Iran. It's a supremely ambitious agenda, and before the curtain goes up, Obama should explore his options and risks carefully.

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By seeking to engage all the major actors in the Middle East at once, Obama is pursuing a general settlement of tensions in a dangerously unstable region. That's intriguing and also worrying for countries in the Middle East. It makes Saudis and Israelis -- not to mention Iranians and Syrians -- nervous.

If you're looking for a historical analogy for this scale of diplomacy, think of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. That gathering produced a new security architecture for a Europe that had been violently destabilized by revolutionary France -- in something like the way the Middle East has been upset by the 1979 Iranian revolution.

A young Henry Kissinger made his name at Harvard with a 1954 doctoral dissertation on the diplomacy that framed the Congress of Vienna. It was published in 1957 as "A World Restored," and it makes useful reading now, as we contemplate Obama's diplomatic maneuvers. Of special interest is this quotation from Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian chancellor who orchestrated the diplomacy and who was Kissinger's intellectual role model. It goes to the question of how and when to start the diplomatic drama:

"[Policy] is like a play in many acts," Metternich wrote, "which unfolds inevitably once the curtain is raised. To declare then that the performance will not take place is an absurdity. The play will go on, either by means of the actors . . . or by means of the spectators who mount the stage. . . . Intelligent people never consider this the essence of the problem, however. For them it lies in the decision whether the curtain is to be raised at all."

Obama chose to give a gaudy public preview of his diplomacy with the televised "Nowruz" greeting to Iran's leaders last month on the occasion of the Persian new year. It brought a quick public rebuff from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said Iran was looking for a change in American behavior, not kind words.

Some veteran diplomats think Obama would have been wiser to make a quieter opening -- say, a presidential letter to the Iranian leader, delivered by a senior emissary. That would have given Iran time to respond carefully, in private, rather than backing it into a corner with the video.

The Obama administration has proceeded more cautiously with Syria. The issues were explored early this year by an Arab intermediary trusted by both sides. Through this channel, the Americans signaled their desire to talk about Syria's role in Iraq, joint Syrian-American action against jihadists, and the future of Lebanon, including the role of Hezbollah. The emissary signaled that the United States couldn't discuss return of the Golan Heights, which is a matter for Israel, or the international tribunal to investigate the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which is under U.N. jurisdiction.

The preliminary discussions were followed by a visit to Damascus by two experienced U.S. diplomats, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro. They explored a range of issues, but in a cautious and preliminary way. Both the United States and Syria are still testing each other's intentions; they want to see what's on offer and at what price. Those are the right questions to ask before the curtain goes up.

Arabs and Israelis are equally nervous about Obama's opening to Iran. Both fear being sold out by Obama in his eagerness for Iranian help in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel's new prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, put down his marker on Iran last week in a tough interview with the Atlantic: Either you stop the Iranian nuclear problem, or we will.

The Saudis, Egyptians and other Sunni Arab countries have been sending Obama a similar message. "We don't want a war with Iran," says one Saudi source. "But we are asking whether a U.S.-Iranian understanding will recognize our interests, or will it be at our expense?" The Saudis hope that if Obama's charm offensive toward Iran fails, it will be followed by tough action. "He's building a case against Iran," predicts the Saudi source.

Obama's speech in Turkey on Monday will signal the administration's desire for negotiations in the region. But the new president shouldn't raise the curtain until he has a little better idea what will happen on stage.

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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