Obama risks trap with Ahmadinejad letter, analysts warn
Agence France-Presse
Published: Thursday November 13, 2008

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WASHINGTON (AFP) Barack Obama may have pledged during his campaign to talk to Iran's leaders, but he could fall into a trap by replying to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's congratulatory letter, analysts warn.

A reply, they say, could undermine the president-elect's political support in the United States and rehabilitate Ahmadinejad's tarnished image in Tehran while missing Iran's key player: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Obama said at his first post-election press conference last week that he would "respond appropriately" to the letter but neither he nor his transition team has yet given any indication when or even whether he will follow through.

Two US-based Iran analysts said it would be better for Obama not to reply at all, while another recommended he take his time to write back.

"It is important for the Obama administration to ignore Ahmadinejad as much as possible because he is not a useful interlocutor and it looks like his political star has fallen," expert Gary Samore told AFP.

"I think it makes much more sense to try to open a dialogue with the supreme leader who actually controls the nuclear issue and the other important foreign policy issues," said Samore, from the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Analysts say Iran lies at the nexus of US concerns about the region in which they see Tehran trying not only trying to build a nuclear bomb but to sabotage US interests in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.

"I hope the Obama people ignore the congratulatory message from Ahmadinejad," Samore added.

"If Ahmadinejad could take credit for beginning a dialogue with the United States without conditions, then that would help to rehabilitate his political standing," Samore said.

Early in his campaign, Obama said he was prepared to hold tough presidential negotiations without preconditions with Iran but analysts said public criticism prompted him to temper his call by insisting first on proper preparations.

The outgoing administration of President George W. Bush has gradually eased its hardline toward Iran by taking part in multilateral negotiations offering Tehran both carrots and sticks to stop enriching uranium.

Analysts said the Bush administration -- when it sent top diplomat William Burns to a meeting in Geneva in July -- effectively dropped its precondition of refusing to meet with Iranians until it stops uranium enrichment.

The administration is also contemplating opening an interests section in Iran, the first diplomatic mission there since ties were severed in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the taking of US diplomats as hostages.

It is setting up "a really nice platform for Obama," said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy adviser on Iran.

Even if it says the interests section is to boost ties between peoples rather than governments, the Bush administration or its successor has to "engage in some direct ongoing discussions with the Iranians," Maloney said.

But Maloney said Obama runs "a political risk at home" if he replies to the missive from Ahmadinejad, widely reviled for his denial of the Holocaust, alleged support for terrorism and threats against Israel.

Maloney, who was privy to a debate that resulted in Bush ignoring a letter from Ahmadinejad, said Obama can still reassure Iran he is intent on direct talks by sending a "good signal" after his inauguration on January 20.

The new president could do that, she told AFP, by appointing a high-level diplomat to deal solely with Iran.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said Ahmadinejad's letter "constituted somewhat of a political problem for" the incoming president.

"It's a way for Ahmadinejad to impose himself on Obama and essentially signal him 'you can't get around me,' while Obama is probably thinking about getting around him," Parsi told AFP.

Parsi, who said Obama will likely take his time to reply to the letter, underscored Samore's point that Obama should seek out Khamenei because he is the real decision maker in Tehran.

Like the other analysts, Parsi believes Obama's initial response to the letter and strong opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon struck the right diplomatic balance.

The analysts also expected Obama, while seeking more direct talks with the Iranian leadership, to continue the multilateral talks begun belatedly by the Bush administration with Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain.

"From the European perspective, it would be a great problem if he didn't," Parsi said before adding: "He's going to work more closely with the allies rather than working around them."