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Unclenching the Fist

January 29, 2009
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While much attention has been paid to President Barack Obama's decision to tap former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East, equally significant during the president's first weeks in office are the signals he's been sending toward Iran.

In his first formal television interview as president, Obama told an Arabic station that America was ready to extend a hand of peace to Iran if it changed its ways.

"It is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but also where there are potential avenues for progress," Obama told the Dubai-based satellite channel Al Arabiya. "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

His top diplomats were clearly on message as well. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled the administration's willingness to talk to Iran, saying that Tehran had a "clear opportunity" to engage if it so desired.

And Susan Rice, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in presenting her credentials this week, was quoted as saying: "We look forward to engaging in vigorous diplomacy that includes direct diplomacy with Iran."

She added that the United States would look for ways that are "necessary and appropriate" to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, with a goal of ending its nuclear program.

It's a difficult balancing act for the Obama administration, which has promised a new approach to diplomacy around the world.

In the Jewish community, such words of outreach prompt understandable nervousness. How -- many will ask as they did during the election campaign -- is it possible to engage Iran, whose leaders call for Israel's destruction while they simultaneously pursue the fast track toward nuclear capability?

Indeed, one day after Obama's explicit outreach to the Muslim world, an Iranian government spokesman reiterated the vile position spewed forth by his country's leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that the Holocaust is a "big lie." He chose to make his comments on Jan. 27, the day designated by the United Nations as international Holocaust memorial day.

Despite years of efforts to isolate and threaten Iran through international sanctions and Security Council resolutions, Iran's path toward becoming a nuclear power has been as straight as its support for terrorism. Current estimates suggest that Iran could acquire the uranium enrichment technology needed to attain nuclear weapons within a year or two.

It may indeed be time to try a new approach, one that combines the carrot and the stick.

Dennis Ross, who is being touted as Obama's special Iran envoy, though that is not yet official, outlined such a policy in a Newsweek article a few months ago. Titled "Talk Tough with Iran," Ross said: "Iran has continued to pursue nuclear weapons because the Bush administration hasn't applied enough pressure -- or offered Iran enough rewards for reversing course.

"Sharp sticks, of course, must be balanced by appetizing carrots. We need to offer political, economic and security benefits to Tehran, on the condition that Iran change its behavior not just on nukes but on terrorism as well. Sticks will show Iran what it stands to lose by going nuclear; carrots will show its leaders what they would gain by moderating their behavior. Smart statecraft involves wielding them together."

Ross, a committed Jew who heads the Jewish Agency for Israel's Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank grappling with issues of concern to Jews everywhere, ended his article with the ominous alternatives that exist if nothing new is tried.

"It's needed now to avoid two terrible outcomes: living with a nuclear Iran, or acting militarily to try to prevent it." 

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