Washington Is Calling

It would be best to assume that Israel's distress will not change Obama's intentions, and that dialogue with Iran will be the new strategy. It could be a refreshing change.

Take the recent past as a guide. George Bush Sr. went to war against Iraq, and Bill Clinton was forced to deal with its consequences. George Bush Jr. went to war in Afghanistan and in Iraq - Obama will have to cope with their tail ends.

His vision is taking shape: less army in Iraq, more soldiers in Afghanistan and proposed dialogue with Iran. The outlines of the new strategy are still blurry. American forces will remain in Iraq at least until 2011, which means the troop surge in Afghanistan will be limited unless Obama decides to pull a large number of soldiers out of the Iraq. As for Iran, it clearly could play an important role in how Iraq could function without the United States.

There seems to be a much greater chance than ever before of mending the 30-year rift in U.S.-Iran relations. Obama's offer of dialogue comes as Iran prepares for elections in approximately six months' time, and dialogue with the U.S. is likely to help Mahmoud Ahmadinejad find favor with voters. If, despite the Iranian president's determination to continue to enrich uranium and to develop nuclear technology, Washington is prepared to offer him a new diplomacy containing much more than economic incentives to a country in deep economic crisis, then Ahmadinejad will be able to claim it as a personal achievement. More important, Obama's proposal cannot offer less than that made last year by the six negotiating countries, including Bush's U.S. That offer sees Iran, inter alia, as a partner to managing regional crises, from Iraq to Lebanon to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The U.S. will not go to battle against Iran alone, and the international effort to tighten the sanctions against Iran could prove unrealistic. When Germany expands its trade with Iran; Turkey signs a memorandum of understanding with Iran over developing natural gas fields; Russia announces it wants rights to develop gas fields in Khuzestan Province; China cooperates with Iran on an enormous scale; and India is about to sign an agreement for a multibillion gas pipeline from Iran, then it would appear that any international agreement on sanctions would aspire to the lowest common denominator, low enough so as not to damage the economic interests of Iran's friends on the Security Council.

Close advisers of Obama, lobbyists for megacorporations and U.S. congressional representatives who sent a letter to the Iranian parliament, inviting their counterparts to initiate a dialogue, are all vigorously preparing the ground for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Some of its proponents note that the Bush administration launched a dialogue with Iran over Iraq, and that the U.S. has a productive dialogue with Iran in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And the Baker-Hamilton report back in 2006 suggested initiating talks with Iran. What can Obama add to this, and on what will the Republican criticism of him be based if he adopts the recommendation of a report whose authors represent the Republican-Democratic consensus?

At first glance Israel should be concerned about the new American strategy. Israeli critics say it shows an enervation of America and a willingness to make concessions to Iran without demanding anything in return. Their lexicon is identical to that of those opposing dialogue with Syria. Such a dialogue, they say, will erase the deterrent component of threatening to escalate sanctions and of hints about the use of force. It also neutralizes Israel's ability to issue threats against Iran or even to recruit international support against Iran, a focus of recent years that has even succeeded somewhat in convincing the international community about the extent of the Iranian threat.

But it would be best to assume that Israel's distress will not change Obama's intentions, and that dialogue with Iran will be the new strategy. There is no cause for panic. Sanctions did not prevent war against Saddam Hussein, and the war against Iraq did not turn the Middle East into a calmer region. Dialogue could be a refreshing change.