Obama would engage Iran if elected, he says
By Michael R. Gordon and Jeff Zeleny Published: November 1, 2007
CHICAGO: If elected president, Senator Barack Obama would meet with Iran's leaders and offer economic inducements and a possible promise not to seek "regime change" if Iran stopped meddling in Iraq and cooperated on terrorism and nuclear issues.
In an hour-long interview on Wednesday, Obama made clear that forging a new relationship with Iran would be a major element of a broad effort to stabilize Iraq. And he vowed to engage in "aggressive personal diplomacy" with Iran and other regional powers as he withdrew American combat forces in Iraq.
Obama said that Iran had been "acting irresponsibly" by supporting Shiite militant groups in Iraq. He also stressed that Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program and its support for "terrorist activities" were serious concerns and that "we expect them to desist from those actions."
But Obama said that "changes in behavior" by Iran should be met with gestures by the United States, beginning with possible membership in the World Trade Organization.
"We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith," he said. "I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hell bent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior."
In his Democratic presidential bid, Obama has vigorously sought to distinguish his foreign policy approach from his rivals, particularly the policy of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, by asserting he would sit down for diplomatic meetings with countries like Iran, North Korea and Syria with few if any preconditions.
The suggestion, which emerged as a flashpoint in the campaign, has prompted Clinton to question whether such an approach would amount to little more than a propaganda victory for the United States' adversaries and to question Obama's experience.
Obama's approach to Iran differs significantly from that of the Bush administration, which has authorized Ambassador Ryan Crocker to discuss Iraq with Iranian officials.
But the Bush administration has said it will not engage in high-level talks with Iran on other issues unless it suspends its program to enrich uranium, a condition that Obama did not cite.
But Iran is not the only way in which Obama has sought to differentiate his position from that of his chief rival for the Democratic nomination. Obama has also tried to draw a distinction on how to go forward on Iran.
Clinton has called for leaving a residual force in Iraq after carrying out major troop withdrawals to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other terrorist groups, train the Iraqi Army and deter Iranian intervention.
Obama has also talked about keeping a limited force in Iraq after withdrawing American combat units. But he insisted that the mission of his residual force would be more circumscribed than that posited by Clinton.
Obama said that the counter-terrorism force he plans to retain in the region might be based outside Iraq. He stressed that the purpose of his residual force would not be to deter Iranian involvement. And he said that he would only commit to training Iraqi security forces if the government there engaged in political reconciliation.
In any event, he said, American trainers would not be attached to Iraqi units that would go in harm's way. "We're not going to be providing long-term and constant embedded training operations," he said.
Whether such a limited force could effectively influence events in Iraq is an important question. Keeping a counter-terrorism force outside the country raises the issue of whether it could respond in a timely way. Nor is it clear how the American military might protect the trainers it would leave beyond without combat forces in Iraq.
But Obama acknowledged that there were "legitimate questions" as to whether his concept of a residual force was militarily feasible and said he would not pursue it in office without discussions with senior military leaders.
Other aspects of his policy also remain unclear. While Obama said he hoped to withdraw all American combat forces within 16 months of taking office he also said in the interview that American and allied troops should be prepared to return to Iraq and protect civilians if there was genocidal attacks against civilians.
A mission to squelch possible genocide after an American troops withdrawal goes beyond anything Clinton has proposed.
Obama argued that it was "too speculative" to say if the United States would undertake such action unilaterally or only if allied nations participated.
Anyone who knows me on this forum knows my feelings on Iran and probably knows I am not a democrat. However, this sort of different thinking may be just what the US needs to better relations in the middle east and possibly solving a lot of conflicts that have been going on for 20+ years. For so long we have waited on a regime change or a conflict serious enough with Iran to use military force to remove the threat, but no progress has been made, maybe it is time to try something different and grow up, act like adults, sit down at the table and hash these things out like real men, and then if there is still a conflict, then I say let the best man win. I have to give to Obama on this one, it got my attention