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Globe editorial

Obama's opening to Iran

March 12, 2009
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ULTIMATELY, the nuclear issue will make or break the dialogue that President Obama wants to open with Iran. But Obama has chosen the right place to test the possibilities for US-Iranian cooperation. This was the significance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent acknowledgement that Iran is to be invited to "a big-tent meeting with all the parties who have a stake and an interest in Afghanistan."

Iran has supported anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and is suffering greatly from the cross-border smuggling of opium grown in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. It makes sense to begin the US-Iran dialogue where shared interests are clear and past cooperation was fruitful.

But the hard issue that cannot be deferred much longer remains Iran's apparent quest for the capability to become a nuclear power. Despite varying estimates on how much low-enriched uranium Iran has already produced, governments and inspectors are fairly clear on Iranian capabilities. The mystery is Iran's ultimate intentions.

In a genuine US-Iran dialogue, particularly one that builds upon mutually beneficial actions in Afghanistan, Obama would have valuable incentives to offer Iranian leaders if they agreed to forgo a nuclear weapons capability. They could have a guarantee of nuclear fuel supplies for peaceful uses, even a uranium enrichment facility on Iranian soil - provided it was outfitted with technology that prevented Iran from diverting what was produced there for use in a military program.

Iranian policy makers might also obtain the equivalent of a no-regime-change guarantee from Washington. In return for ceasing to play the spoiler and divider in Lebanon, the Palestinian arena, and the Arab world generally, Iran could be included in regional organizations and have a say in commercial and security matters that affect its interests. In this way, Iran could follow a diplomatic path to the recognition it seeks as a major power in its region.

But Obama will have to explain to his dialogue partners in Iran that these benefits are not compatible with Iran's becoming a nuclear power. On the contrary, should Iran acquire the ability to field nuclear weapons, it will almost certainly set off a round of regional nuclear proliferation, provoking more wariness than ever among its neighbors. As India learned after going nuclear and thereby nullifying its conventional military advantage over Pakistan, the acquisition of unusable nuclear weapons can leave a country more vulnerable and less secure.

Obama has done well to show Iran he is ready to come to the table. But sooner rather than later, Iran will have to show its cards - to reveal its true intentions.

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