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."
Meanwhile, the Iranian Quds Force continues to lead, train and arm Shiite terrorists within Iraq. And, in Senate committee testimony last week, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair stated, "Some officials, such as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari-Najafabadi, have hinted that Iran would have a hand in attacks on 'America's interests even in far-away places,' suggesting Iran has contingency plans for unconventional warfare and terrorism against the United States and its allies."
Rather than unclenching its fist, Iran has been pounding it on the table.
Third, Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell have returned from trips to the Middle East sobered by the intensity of Arab fears of Iranian intentions. After visiting with Arab foreign ministers, Clinton recounted hearing "over and over and over again" grave concern about the Iranian threat. A high-profile outreach to Iran would likely be taken by Arab leaders as American betrayal. Given the conspiratorial assumptions of Arab diplomacy, they would assume that America is cutting a secret deal with Iran -- and be led to cut such deals of their own.
So the administration has adopted an incremental approach. Clinton has proposed an international conference on Afghanistan that would include Iranian officials, providing a chance for face-to-face meetings on the sidelines -- just as Condoleezza Rice called for an international conference on Iraq including Iranian officials, whom she met face-to-face on the sidelines. And Clinton has undertaken an outreach to Syria -- just as Rice reached out to Syria before the 2007 Annapolis peace conference.
Far from being impulsive on Iran, the administration has sent mixed signals about its sense of urgency. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently concluded that Iran has sufficient stockpiles of low-enriched uranium -- the most difficult part of the enrichment cycle -- to build a nuclear weapon after a short period of further enrichment. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, says he believes "Iran is on a path to develop nuclear weapons." At the same time, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates contends, "They're not close to a weapon at this point" and asserts that the "barrier" for military action against Iran is the question "Are we going to be attacked here at home?" -- which doesn't offer much consolation to Israel or America's Arab friends.
At this point, the administration is combining a policy of caution with a message of confusion. And it does not seem likely to persuade or intimidate.