The subject of diplomacy with Iran has been on Barack Obama's mind for some time. Back in October 2007, while on the campaign trail, the then-Democratic presidential contender famously announced that he would hold "direct diplomacy, without preconditions" with Iran as a counterpoint to the Bush administration's more hawkish approach to the Islamic Republic.
Little has changed in Obama's outlook since. The new president has wasted no time since being inaugurated in making clear that he still seeks diplomatic engagement with the Iranian regime. He has selected a seasoned diplomat, former Israeli-Palestinian negotiator Dennis Ross, as his special envoy on the Iranian issue, and his administration is said to be moving forward with plans to set up an American interests section in Tehran.
But Obama may find that doing so is more difficult than he thinks.
Iran, after all, is still the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism," according to the U.S. State Department in its most recent study on the subject.
It is a label the Iranian regime has worn, and worn proudly, since the U.S. government began keeping track of terrorist trends more than a decade-and-a-half ago.
The scope of this support is enormous. According to government officials, Iran "has a nine-digit line item in its budget for support to terrorist organizations." That figure is estimated to include $10 million or more monthly for its principal terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, $20 million to $30 million annually for Hamas, $2 million a year for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and – at least until recently – upward of $30 million a year for Iraqi insurgents.
Then there are Iran's nuclear ambitions. Since the Iranian regime was discovered to be pursuing a clandestine nuclear program some six years ago, the international community has been preoccupied with Tehran's seemingly inexorable march toward the bomb. Yet so far, nothing the world has done, on the diplomatic front or any other, has made much difference in the Islamic Republic's strategic calculus.
Tehran's nuclear efforts, meanwhile, are increasingly mature – and ominous.
According to a recent study by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, Iran is already roughly halfway to possessing the raw material for a nuclear weapon, and based on its current rate of acquisition "is expected to reach that milestone during 2009 under a wide variety of scenarios." Even more dangerous, however, is the ideology underpinning the Iranian regime.
Three decades after the Islamic Revolution swept the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in Tehran, Iran remains very much a radical, revolutionary movement – one committed to spreading its strain of extreme political Islam throughout the region, and far beyond it.
This foreign policy imperative has pitted Tehran against Washington on a political, ideological and strategic level. Or, as Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, put it soon after his election in 2005, "a historic war between the oppressor (Christians) and the world of Islam" is brewing, and his country is on the front lines.
Our diplomatic approach needs to reflect these realities. Engaging the Iranian regime may be high on the agenda of the Obama administration, based upon its idea that "the power of American diplomacy" can persuade Iran to change course on its nuclear ambitions, its sustenance of international terrorism, and its ideas about "exporting the revolution." But such contacts - and especially the establishment of a diplomatic outpost in Tehran, with all of the permanence in U.S.-Iranian relations that that will bring - needs to be conditioned on real changes in direction on the part of Iran's ayatollahs.
Otherwise, Washington's diplomatic overtures are likely to be seen in Tehran as simply an endorsement of the regime's rogue behavior so far.