IRAN launched a small homemade satellite into orbit last week, ostentatiously foreshadowing the capability one day to deliver nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles. To make sure a domestic audience drew the desired conclusions, the launch was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic Republic to power 30 years ago.
Whatever the effect on the Iranian public or nervous neighbors, the launch should not derail the Obama administration's current review of policy options for Iran. The basic challenges and opportunities confronting President Obama and his advisers are the same now as they were before the Iranian satellite went into orbit Tuesday morning.
The Bush administration sought to isolate Iran, but only enabled its rulers to expand Iran's regional influence and come much closer to producing the enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon.
Obama has said he intends to try the one approach that his predecessor rejected: unconditional diplomatic engagement. This is an approach some Iranian officials have hinted the leadership in Tehran would welcome. It is an initiative that eminent Iran scholars in this country, veteran diplomats, and proliferation specialists are commending to the new administration.
There is a strong case for exploring trade-offs and persuasion as the best way to reduce the danger from Iran's nuclear efforts and from its armed proxies, such as Hezbollah or Hamas. The United States and Iran have overlapping interests. Both have the same enemies in Afghanistan: the Taliban and Al Qaeda. When the United States toppled the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001, Iran cooperated, funding the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance, and helping weld together the post-war government of President Hamid Karzai. And Iran and the United Sates both want to stop heroin trafficking out of Afghanistan.
Similarly, in Iraq, Iran and the United States both support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - even though Tehran and Washington have different long-term goals.
Obama must now weigh the wisdom of undertaking negotiations with Iran before the June presidential election there. To avoid strengthening the hand of the belligerent incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Obama might be wise to declare his intention to begin high-level talks in the summer. He could then affirm that he is ready to transform relations with Iran. And he should open a US interests section in Tehran as a token of his willingness to reestablish full diplomatic relations.
Iran may respond only with more verbal rockets, but dialogue has to be tried.