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Analysis: Iran looms over Obama Mideast work

An increasingly emboldened Iran is both complicating and giving promise to the Obama administration's efforts to forge peace in the Middle East.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An increasingly emboldened Iran is both complicating and giving promise to the Obama administration's efforts to forge peace in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama and his team are reaching out to Iran. At the same time, the Islamic Republic's hostile rhetoric, nuclear activities and missile testing could drive a wedge between America and its closest Mideast ally, Israel.

But Iran's disjointed actions appear to be uniting the region against it.

The administration hopes to capitalize on what it sees as an unprecedented coalescence of opinion in the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors on Iran. The U.S. wants to use that convergence as leverage to press ahead with Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts as well as seek a broader Arab-Israeli accord.

This, officials argue, will isolate Tehran by removing the long-running conflict from the regional security equation.

Obama made that case to Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House this past week. The president is expected to do so again in this coming Thursday in talks in Washington with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as well as in early June when Obama is in Egypt for a major address to the Muslim world.

Arab-Israeli consensus?
The strategy also involves trying to diminish Iran's influence in Syria and its anti-Israeli proxies in Lebanon by opening the door to better relations with Syria, where special Mideast envoy George Mitchell might go soon, officials said.

Experts believe Arab-Israeli consensus on Iran is real. But they note it is rooted in very different fears and, for that reason, may not hold. Still, some are optimistic about the chances this new consensus presents.

"The administration has to find the best path," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Is this the best path? Given the opportunities, yes. They may not produce success but they offer the best alternative available."

So far, the administration's Iran overtures have not been reciprocated. Israel will resist if the U.S. tries to use the Iran threat to push Israel into making concessions in the peace process.

Iran's missile launch this past week probably will try Israel's patience. Israel regards Iran as an "existential threat" and has warned of a unilateral military strike unless there is diplomatic success soon to prevent Tehran from getting nuclear weapons capability.

Administration officials said they expressed concern about the launch but stopped short of an outright condemnation to reaffirm their readiness to extend an olive branch to Iran.

"We want to keep our hand outstretched," said one official familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal administration thinking.

The Obama team has been conducting an internal review of Iran policy. The administration has concluded it would reverse President George W. Bush's calculated shunning of Iran by reaching out and participating in meetings with Iranian officials on the nuclear issue.

The review is evolving and the next steps will be decided in large part based on how Iran responds to the initial overtures, officials said. They say it's unrealistic to expect responses ahead of Iran's elections next month. The hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, is seeking a second term.

Israel has deep reservations about an open-ended U.S. approach that could allow Iran to enrich enough uranium to produce nuclear weapons. Israel wants to see the Iranian threat dealt with before pursuing peace deals with the Arabs.

In the talks with Netanyahu, officials said Obama sought to allay Israeli concerns by agreeing to set up working groups that will gather senior U.S. and Israeli national security officials to consult on three areas: Iran, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the Arab peace initiative.

After meeting Netanyahu, Obama said he did not want to set an "artificial deadline" for Iran to respond. Obama stressed that he wanted to see "serious process of engagement" after Iran's June 12 presidential elections, with an assessment of progress by year's end.

But U.S. officials said Iran probably won't get until the end of the year to demonstrate its willingness to address international concerns about its nuclear program. Such steps could include accepting an offer from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia) and Germany to suspend uranium enrichment, they said.

Dennis Ross, the administration's point man on Iran policy, has suggested the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in late September will be critical date, according to diplomats he has briefed on U.S. plans.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told lawmakers this past Wednesday that "the strategy which we are laying out does have a time frame" when "we either see some openness and some willingness to engage on this very important issue with us or we don't."

The administration has not set a definitive deadline, said a senior official who spoke anonymously in order to describe the planning.

Experts say the United States has limited time.

"The administration can afford to wait, but it is not a clock that is going to tick forever because of the Israelis," said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Public Policy. "The administration is going to have to try to impose some sense of urgency on this."

The U.S. is laying the groundwork for how to proceed if Iran continues to ignore or reject the overtures.

Clinton has said Iran will face "crippling sanctions" if it does not respond. She and Obama have said international penalties, as opposed to unilateral U.S. punishment, would be most effective. But Iran already is subject to three sets of Security Council penalties and veto-wielding members Russia and China are resistant to add more.

In recent weeks, the administration quietly has encouraged Congress to pass legislation that would empower the president to put in place new economic and financial penalties against Iran and against foreign companies that do business with Iran.

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