Yesterday the New York Times published an interesting Op-Ed piece by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, critiquing the Obama administration efforts to engage Iran.  The authors’ primary complaint is thar President Obama and his staff have not done enough to distance their policy from that of the previous administration and to work directly with with top Iranian officials.  They have some compelling arguments; such as their suggestion that no Iranian officials will be inclined to take American diplomatic moves seriously until Obama has publicly declared his intention to “cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic”.

The Leveretts’ article, however, may be poorly timed.  I too hope that the Obama administration will make direct engagement with Iran one of its top priorities.  But I think that the decision to take it slow until after the June 12th presidential elections is a good one.  The recent release of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi demonstrates that there are deep divisions among Iranian political elites, particularly about how they should interact with America.  The four candidates in the presidential race have each made relations with America and the West a key issue in their platforms. Ahmadinejahd has been under attack from all sides for his handling of foreign policy and the regime’s recent decision to block Facebook demonstrates just how threatened his administration feels by reformist opponents.

The office of the President may not hold a lot of real political power in Iran; that is reserved for the Supreme Leader.  But if there is anything that the presidency of Mohmood Ahmadinejahd has shown us, it is that the president can be an important figure in setting the agenda and influencing Iranian political culture.  On June 12th Iranian voters will vote for the candidate who best represents their hopes for Iran’s future.  By waiting until the new Iranian administration is in power to pursue direct engagement, the Obama administration is both denying the current administration to opportunity to claim a foreign relations victory and giving itself time to prepare strategies to reflect the possible outcomes of the election.

Hopefully both Iranian voters and President Obama will do their part to work for direct and meaningful diplomacy.

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