WASHINGTON -- One of the snippiest arguments between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary concerned negotiations with Iran. Obama impulsively pledged to meet with the leaders of various outlaw regimes in his first year as president. Clinton countered, "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. ... We're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be."
So far, Clinton's approach has prevailed on Iran, for a number of reasons.
First, Iran has a presidential election set for June 12, in which the apocalyptic populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces a strong reformist opponent. Ahmadinejad's political standing has been weakened by inflation running over 20 percent and estimated unemployment near 30 percent. His prospects might be strengthened by direct, high-level American engagement. The administration has properly avoided giving a demagogue a global stage during an election.
Second, Iran has not been in a cooperative mood. Ahmadinejad greeted Obama's inaugural appeal -- the outreached hand for the unclenched fist -- with the demand for an apology for "crimes" against Iran and "deep and fundamental" change in U.S. policy. Recently, for good measure, he repeated his assertion that the Holocaust is a "big lie." Earlier this month, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave his first public comments on the new era of openness and diplomacy. He attacked Obama for adopting George W. Bush's strategic commitment to Israel, calling that nation a "cancerous tumor." He expressed unequivocal support for terrorist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and criticized Palestinian leaders for any compromise with the "Zionist regime."
Iranian leaders and proxies seem to be taking the offer of negotiations as a sign of American weakness. "The United States," taunts Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, "is ready now to talk with any party, not out of a sense of morality, but because it failed in its attempts to implement its plans in the region."