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Will Obama Stack His Middle East Team with Neoconservative Ideologues?

Obama has pledged to "engage" with Iran in a respectful way, but "engagement" is a malleable concept.

None of President Obama's foreign policy actions will matter more than how he approaches Iran. Most other big challenges -- Russia, China, trade policy, development, human rights -- will continue the trajectory of previous American policies, with some variations.

But Iran poses a set of dynamic challenges. In one way or another, it touches upon all the turmoil of the region, it is at the center of oil and gas production and pricing, its leadership connects with political Islam the world over, and it has strengthening ties to Russia, India, China and Japan. 

Obama has pledged, as recently as last Jan. 11, to "engage" with Iran in a respectful way, which is certainly a change, at least in tone. But "engagement" is a malleable concept.  At this early stage of the Obama era, it's important to understand who might shape that engagement, who has responsibility for Iran in the State Department and how those people perceive the future contours of the U.S.-Iran relationship. 

And on that score, if the Washington rumor mill is correct, we are in for another dose of "get tough" diplomacy.  As Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her confirmation hearings to be Secretary of State, they intend to approach Iran's nuclear-development program "through diplomacy, through the use of sanctions, through creating better coalitions with countries that we believe also have a big stake in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon power, to try to prevent this from occurring."   

The core of that list and her statement that "all options are on the table" -- code for a military attack on Iran -- is coercion. It won't work, if by "work" we mean to make Iran bend to our will. It hasn't worked for three decades. And such a continuation of coercive policies could create even more dissonance in the relationship than at any time in the 30 years since the Islamic revolution. 

The gloom that is descending over many critics of Bush's catastrophic foreign policy stems from Obama's appointments and the indiscernible "change" agenda that such choices convey. Foreign policy has always been a tightly held portfolio, with few outside the small club of specialists chosen for major posts. But even within this small demographic, there are very sharp differences of skill, temperament and ideology. Once Clinton was named as secretary of state, it was certain that many of those who served in her husband's administration would be returning to government. But even that cohort, which was not particularly successful, had a wide range of temperaments and inclinations, from highly professional diplomats to craven political hacks and neoconservative ideologues.   

Particularly upsetting to growing numbers of policy analysts, former diplomats and liberal activists are the widespread rumors of who would take on the ultrasensitive posts managing affairs in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and South Asia.

According to these reports, Dennis Ross would become a special envoy whose portfolio includes Iran, and possibly the entire region; Richard Holbrooke would take the special envoy slot for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; and Richard Haass would take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. 

Just after the inauguration, Holbrooke was announced for his rumored slot, and former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, was given the job of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. By the end of the inauguration week, there was no official word on Ross. Holbrooke, Ross and Mitchell have been affiliated with groups that are overtly hostile to Iran, and it is that record of belligerence that has many who hope for a change of course wary.

Since 2001, Ross, the tirelessly unsuccessful Mideast negotiator under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has been employed by the Israeli-backed Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the policy arm of American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a key component of the Israel lobby in the United States.  (WINEP was founded by Martin Indyk, another Clinton-era diplomat who may play a role in the Obama government.)  Holbrooke, former U.N. envoy under Clinton, headed an ad hoc group called United Against a Nuclear Iran, which advocates military action against Iran if U.S.-defined terms are not met; Ross belongs to that group, and to a so-called Bipartisan Policy Center, which similarly advocates an extremely militant stance toward Iran.  (Mitchell is one of four co-chairs of the latter group.) All of these organizations are populated by neocons and reflect what could charitably be called a "Cheney-plus" strategic vision. 

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