Obama's New Friend

Unlike countries such as North Korea, or even nuclear Pakistan, U.S. policy toward Iran is based on more than preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"Israel is not opposed to American dialogue with Iran," sources described as "close to Netanyahu" were quoted in this paper on Friday. That kind of semantics makes you feel proud - it's as if Israel dictates to Washington whether to talk with Iran. Two days earlier, another daily, Maariv, reported that the prime minister was very pleased with the preparations for a "military option" against Iran. He was briefed by the chief of staff and "was favorably surprised by the ongoing training for foiling Iran's nuclear program."

We can relax now. Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau is in control. On Wednesday it was ready to go to war against Iran and on Friday it agreed to dialogue with Tehran. Meanwhile, it appears the bureau's dialogue with the media is running smoothly and on paper everything's in order: The Israeli threat is ready against the threat of dialogue.

Maybe it's necessary to point out that Iran still has no nuclear weapons, but rather missiles capable of striking Israel. It could turn out that Israeli jets will make their way to bomb uranium enrichment plants in Iran - assuming of course these can be hit - while ballistic missiles will make their way toward Israel's cities. Israel might bomb and suffer a fatal blow. This is the real, present and immediate threat. But it seems the Washington of Barack Obama believes the picture is a bit more complicated than that.

Iran is also a country that has assisted the United States in its war against Al-Qaida, and it serves as Afghanistan's vital economic backbone. Iran will ensure that Iraq remains a relatively stable country after the Americans withdraw, and it is considered efficient in combating drug trafficking from Afghanistan. It may also provide oil to Pakistan and India through a pipeline to those pro-Western countries.

Iran has so far been everyone's playing field: from Russia and China to France and Japan; only the United States has stood on the sidelines. Iran views itself, and to a certain extent rightfully so, as a regional power, and is unwilling to allow others exclusive control of the region it considers its natural sphere of influence. It's not a matter of exporting the Iranian revolution, an effort that failed long ago, but of political involvement and acquiring influence in the region's diplomacy. It's a struggle of hegemony versus Egypt and Saudi Arabia, competition with Turkey, concern about Russia and fear of nuclear Pakistan and India. It's a struggle whose advantages the United States is also beginning to appreciate.

The Bush administration's dialogue with Tehran did not occur because of the nuclear threat but because of Iraq. The Obama administration's first meeting with Iran, which took place late last month, was also not about the nuclear issue but about Afghanistan. Obama seems to have completely adopted the report by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, compiled under the Bush administration, according to which Iran would be included in the region's diplomatic developments.

Such involvement was also proposed to Iran in the incentive package the UN Security Council's five permanent members and Germany offered last summer. Iran is increasingly being perceived not only as the ultimate threat, but also as a "land of diplomatic opportunities." Iran is seen as a country that - more than Saudi Arabia and Egypt - can influence Hamas, certainly Hezbollah, and also Syria in negotiations with Israel, and as a country that can stabilize Iraq and contribute to the international effort in Afghanistan.

Unlike countries such as North Korea, or even nuclear Pakistan, U.S. policy toward Iran is based on more than preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons. The United States wants Iran by its side on volatile battlegrounds, not against it. Washington's willingness to talk with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran, and not wait for the results of the June elections, suggests a new, realistic and refreshing approach.

Israel will have to get used to this situation. Netanyahu's bureau may continue to issue whatever statements it likes, pleased by plans to attack, and may later believe it is dictating the dialogue. But on the dance floor, the really important tango is going on, and it would be best if Netanyahu's bureau takes its place among the spectators.