WASHINGTON — Suddenly the door has opened for President Barack Obama to put his long-shot diplomatic strategy to the test and fulfill a campaign pledge to negotiate directly with North Korea and Iran.
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Casting aside preconditions that former President George W. Bush had set for talking with countries he called part of an "axis of evil," Obama is making a play for progress where none has been achieved lately. At stake with both Iran and North Korea is the risk of an eventual nuclear confrontation.
The administration is trying to keep expectations low, saying it has no illusions that either North Korea or Iran will suddenly soften their stance and give up their nuclear ambitions. But it insists that diplomacy is the only realistic hope for heading off a potential nuclear arms race in the Mideast and in Asia.
In the case of Iran, the administration seems ready to argue that talks are a no-lose proposition.
"If Iran is unwilling to discuss their illicit nuclear weapons program, I think all that does is strengthen the hand of the international community," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.
His remark appeared to allude to the prospect of building international support for new sanctions against Iran in the event that Tehran remains unwilling to negotiate an end to its nuclear program.
In the few days since the administration declared itself ready to talk to both Iran and North Korea, the response on Capitol Hill has been less than overwhelmingly supportive.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, blasted the administration Monday.
"Iran and North Korea are actively working against critical U.S. security interests and allies and endangering global peace and security," she said. "They are among the world's worst human rights abusers. Yet, what is the U.S. response? Unconditional negotiations and unending offers of incentives."
In some respects the negotiating landscape has shifted since Obama took office, with uncertain implications for whether the president stands much of a chance of succeeding where his predecessor could not.
Iran, which denies U.S. and international suspicions that its nuclear program is meant to produce a bomb, insists its program is nonnegotiable. But last week it pronounced itself ready for talks on a broader agenda, and an initial meeting is to be held Oct. 1 — the first such forum in more than one year.
The Obama administration had expected Iran to make an overture earlier this summer but that was before the Islamic Republic's tainted June presidential election and the regime's harsh crackdown on election protests. That has raised questions about the regime's ability to deliver on any negotiated agreement.
Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council, which favors dialogue with Tehran, said Monday that the U.S. and its international negotiating partners — Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — should make human rights a key part of the coming talks, particularly in light of the postelection violence.
"Failing to raise human rights in the talks would send the Iranian government a dangerous message of international indifference to the plight of the Iranian people," Parsi said.
The Obama administration, echoing the demands of the Bush White House, insists that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment. Tehran says it wants to use enrichment technology to create nuclear fuel for electricity generation, but the U.S. and others suspect that its real intent is to make the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Ray Takeyh, an adviser on Iran policy at the State Department before joining the Council on Foreign Relations think tank two weeks ago, said it appears unlikely Iranian leaders are ready to yield to outside pressure.
"I suspect they are not in the mood for compromise and concession," Takeyh said.
North Korea, which claims it already has a nuclear arsenal and threatens to use it if attacked, shut the door last spring on denuclearization talks with the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Last month, however, it announced it was ready to talk — but only to the U.S., excluding the others.
And now the Obama administration says it is prepared to take up the North Korean offer, although Kelly told reporters at the State Department on Monday that no final decision has been made.
Chester A. Crocker, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1981 to 1989, wrote in the New York Times on Monday that the administration must be prepared for any outcome with Iran and North Korea.
"By far the greatest risk of engagement is that it may succeed," wrote Crocker, now a professor of strategic studies at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. "If we succeed in changing the position of the other country's decision-makers, we then must decide whether we will take `yes' for an answer and reciprocate their moves with steps of our own."
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