Just as Nixon went to China, should Obama go to Iran?

World powers, and the US in particular, need a game-changer to move Iran to a cooperative stance concerning its nuclear program, a few analysts argue. Such an Obama overture to Iran is a provocative idea, they say, but the alternative may be military confrontation.

In the 34 years since its revolution, Iran has marked key gains in the Middle East and pursued a nuclear program that shows little signs of slowing, despite a barrage of Western economic sanctions. Is it time for the United States to switch course and make a Nixon-to-China move vis a vis the Islamic republic?

That provocative idea, at the center of a new book by two American experts on Iran, is raising eyebrows in Washington even as a new round of talks between world powers and Iran over Tehran’s advancing uranium-enrichment program began Tuesday.

The talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France) plus Germany, offered few initial glimmers of progress toward defusing a crisis careening toward confrontation.

The world powers offered Iran limited sanctions relief if it ceases to enrich uranium to 20 percent – a level of purity that can quickly be further refined to produce weapons-grade fuel. Iran, in turn, pledged to make a counteroffer at Day 2 of talks on Wednesday.

But with optimism for the talks low, some experts say the world powers, and principally the US, must come up with a much bigger game-changer than a modest reduction of sanctions if they are to move Iran – and perhaps to avoid another Middle East war as early as this summer.

“You could have a deal on the nuclear issue within weeks if the US accepted a certain level of safeguarded enrichment,” says Flynt Leverett, a former director for Middle East affairs in the Bush administration National Security Council (NSC) and professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. But that “would basically mean accepting the Islamic republic [of Iran]” as a legitimate power, he adds – something Mr. Leverett advocates.

Leverett, who with his wife, Georgetown University professor Hillary Mann Leverett, recently published “Going to Tehran,” says the US president ultimately will have to pull off something that “parallels the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China” in 1972 and “accept Iran and [it] having an independent foreign policy.”

President Obama has vowed to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon, while ally Israel – which Mr. Obama will visit in March – insists that Iran on its current trajectory may well have assembled the stockpile of enriched uranium and other elements permitting a “break-out” to a rapid assembly of a nuclear bomb by this summer.

By The Christian Science Monitor


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