Very high up on the list of foreign policy challenges for President Barack Obama will be Iran. During the long campaign, then-candidate Obama repeatedly defended his willingness to open a dialogue with Iran. But the path to any potential U.S.-Iranian reconciliation is tricky and lined with hazards.
Is a thaw in the 30-year-long diplomatic deep freeze between the U.S. and Iran coming during the Obama administration? Many analysts believe it is. Talk among foreign policy experts of some kind of dialogue with Iran has intensified since Mr. Obama's election. And many analysts believe the road to a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement runs through Baghdad.
Brian Fishman, the director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and co-author of a new paper on Iranian strategy in Iraq, said a common interest in what happens in Iraq could open the door to some thaw in the U.S.-Iranian relationship.
"There's certainly a lot of room for antagonism; I hesitate to use the word 'conflict.' But there's a lot of room for cooperation because Iran wants a stable Iraq. We want a stable Iraq. Iraqis want a stable Iraq. And that, at its core, is a place to start. It certainly isn't the end game, and there are a lot of hurdles. But it provides the basis for a potentially productive relationship between the two countries," he said.
Iran is deeply disturbed about the prospect of a U.S.-Iraqi agreement that would allow a U.S. troop presence to remain on its western flank in Iraq until the end of 2011.
There have already been several rounds of talks on Iraq between senior U.S. and Iranian officials. However, previous talks achieved few concrete results in part because of disputes over Iran's support for Iraqi Shi'ite militias.
Talking with Iran is a difficult policy to sell. Tehran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons - which Iranian officials deny - is a major stumbling block. Iranian support for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi'ite militias in Iraq and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threat to destroy Israel have also reinforced negative views of Iran. Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said after the U.S. election that discussions with Iran would be, as she put it, a message of weakness.
Former CIA field officer Gary Berntsen is a self-described hawk on Iran who was a New York state veterans coordinator for Republican candidate John McCain. He said talking to Iran is pointless.
"I recognize that there have been discussions right now on how we deal with Iran. But in negotiations with Iran, what would we give them? The Iranians want to dominate the region. They've talked about destroying Israel. They want to expel us from the area. I mean, what is it that we could give them?" he asked.
But another former CIA officer, Bob Baer, disagreed.
"Yes, we can talk to them. All of their demands in Baghdad have been very reasonable. We share a common interest with them on security in Iraq. Neither of us wants a civil war. And in Afghanistan, neither of us wants the Taliban back in Kabul. And these are certainly points we could go through one by one and come to a solution fairly easily," said Baer.
Brian Fishman said Iran has evolved into a nation motivated as much by national interests as revolutionary ideology.
"If this was a country that was driven only by ideology, then it would be very difficult to influence it. But when you recognize that they are also driven by old-fashioned national interest, that gives you some levers to play in a productive way, where you can put pressure on the regime, but you can also offer it things that are useful," he said.
In his paper, Fishman recommended that the United States separate - decouple, in diplomatic parlance - the Iraqi question from other contentious issues of Iranian behavior or policy, such as the nuclear program.
As for the nuclear issue, Bob Baer said that Iran can be persuaded to drop any ambitions to be a nuclear power.
"We can talk these countries out of [nuclear] deterrence. It happened with Brazil. It happened with Libya. But you have to give them something in return. In return for the Libyans stopping making a bomb we lifted sanctions. We'd have to do the same thing with Iran. I think you can talk them out of it," he said.
Baer suggested that secret discussions be opened with Iran through a back channel on an agenda for talks. Then, Baer said, the Obama administration should send a secret envoy to Iran to follow up.
"If they refuse or you show up in Tehran and no one comes to the meeting, well, there's your answer. You get back on the plane and come home. But you're not going to know unless you actually send somebody," Baer said.
Analysts all warn not to expect too much. After all, both sides have 30 years of mutual distrust and hostility to get past. And, as usual, Iran is sending mixed signals. President Ahmadinejad sent a letter of congratulation to President-elect Obama - the first such letter to an American president since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. A week later, Iran test-fired a missile with a purported range that would put it within striking distance of Israel.