Dennis Ross becomes Barack Obama’s adviser on Iran.

A Persian puzzle
Feb 24th 2009 | NEW YORK

BARACK OBAMA has spoken of reaching out to difficult regimes, if only such opponents would unclench their fists. In turn Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has given some indication that his country would be willing to engage with America, if it could be done on the basis of “mutual respect”. The latest step in the delicate diplomatic dance between Iran and America was taken on Monday February 23rd, as Mr Obama named his new point-man for Iran.

It has been a long time coming. For over a month rumours abounded that the job would go to Dennis Ross, a former negotiator for America in Arab-Israeli peace talks. But while other envoys to the Middle East were announced—one each for Palestine-Israel and Afghanistan-Pakistan—Mr Ross’s appointment was delayed. Some think him too close to Israel; a critical former State Department official has suggested that he was Israel’s lawyer in negotiations with the Palestinians, and he has lately hung his hat at a pro-Israel think-tank. Part of the delay may have revolved around his exact responsibilities and title. Rumour had it that he would be a “super-envoy” above all others in Middle East policy. That seems to have been overdone; he will instead be a “special adviser” for the Gulf and south-west Asia.

America has no direct relations with Iran, yet: deciding whether and how to open up to the country will be a delicate process. It remains unclear whether the Iranians will want to talk to Mr Ross at all: some Iran-policy experts suggest that his background will put the Iranians off. Nor is it clear what the scope of any talks might be.

Last there is the ticking of the nuclear clock. A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency recently suggested that Iran has more low-enriched nuclear material than previously thought. It has enough for a nuclear bomb, though that material would yet require much more enrichment, which is no mean feat. American hawks note that Mr Khatami is no dove; the nuclear-weapons programme that America’s spies think Iran suspended in 2003 was ongoing under Mr Khatami’s watch. And average Iranians support Iran’s unhampered right to nuclear technology, even if they do not want a bomb.

With all these considerations in the balance, it is no wonder that Mr Obama has moved cautiously on Iran. He has pressing domestic and economic concerns, too, so may feel it is wise to proceed slowly with any foreign-policy changes. But even if Mr Obama is wise to take careful steps he—and Mr Ross—will come under greater pressure to spell out soon what path he hopes to follow.

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