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Obama now playing hard to get with Iran?

Obama now playing hard to get with Iran?

What a difference a month makes. In May, Barack Obama‘s administration reportedly sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterating the U.S. president’s public offer of talks with Iran. Then in early June, the State Department said it had instructed U.S. embassies to invite Iranian diplomats to attend official American Independence Day festivities around the world.

But the "hotdog diplomacy" is off, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced today: The United States has rescinded its July 4 invitations to Iranian diplomats. Granted, no Iranian officials had actually RSVP’d to the invites, he acknowledged. "I don’t think it’s surprising that nobody’s signed up to come given the events of the past days," Gibbs said. "Those invitations will no longer be extended."

And there are other potential indications that Western efforts to reach out to Iran are being put temporarily on ice. Gibbs’s announcement comes a day after Italy said that it too is rescinding invitations to Iran to participate in multilateral talks going on in Trieste Italy later this week, which Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns will attend. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been scheduled to go but is recovering from surgery to repair a broken elbow.) Iran hadn’t responded to that invitation, either, before it was revoked, reports said.

Obama said at a news conference yesterday that he believes prospects for near-term engagement with Iran were not high. "What we have been seeing over past couple weeks is not encouraging in terms of the path this regime may try to take," the U.S. president said.

"The international community is bearing witness to what is taking place," Obama continued. "And the Iranian government should understand that how they handle the dissent within their own country generated indigenously, internally from the Iranian people will help shape the tone not only for Iran’s future, but also its relationship to other countries."

Indeed, some Middle East watchers believe the timing of news last night that the United States would send an ambassador back to Damascus Syria after a four-year absence is no coincidence, and may be related to the new Obama administration tone on Iran.

Asked about that theory, a U.S. official said: "You’re warm." Syrian Embassy and Middle East expert sources noted that news reports on the envoy to Damascus seemed to have originated with the White Housewhich has been in the midst of daily meetings about Iran for several daysnot the State Department.

"I think the Obama administration strategy while not fully formed was always that it wanted to engage with both Iran and Syria, and it wanted to play one side off the other," said Syria expert Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This does have to do with that. I don’t think we fully understand all of their reasoning on this … but by announcing that it will send an ambassador to Damascus, it sends a message both to Damascus and Tehran."

"As for engagement at this point, the focus is necessarily on the events in Iran," a senior administration official emailed The Cable Wednesday of current thinking. "How could it be otherwise?"

Asked about a report in the Washington Times on the Obama administration’s letter to Khamenei, the senior official said, "We have indicated a willingness to talk for a long time and have sought to communicate with the Iranians in a variety of ways. We have made it clear that any real dialogue — multilateral or bilateral — needed to be authoritative." 

"[I’m] not gonna get into the specifics of our different ways of communicating," the official added, "but there is an outstanding direct request from the [permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany] that was made on April 8th. The Iranians have yet to respond to that."

The apparent cooling of Obama’s outreach efforts to Iran represents a tactical shift, not a change in the goal of eventually getting to engagement, Iran analysts said.

"At the end of the day, the necessity of diplomacy has not changed by this," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, referring to the post-elections violence in Iran. "The political feasibility [of engagement] has changed."

"When the dust has settled, the U.S. has an interest in dealing with whoever is in charge," Parsi added. "What I don’t think should be done prematurely is to determine who is standing before the dust has settled. That is the difference."

UPDATE: A State Department spokesman e-mails the following:

Since so many of you have asked us what the WH was referencing in this afternoon’s briefing, here is part of the ‘ALDAC’ cable that went out today from Secretary Clinton to posts worldwide directing them to rescind all invitations that have been extended to Iranian diplomats for July 4th events:

“Unfortunately, circumstances have changed, and participation by Iranian diplomats would not be appropriate in light of the unjust actions that the President and I have condemned.  For invitations which have been extended, posts should make clear that Iranian participation is no longer appropriate in the current circumstances.  For invitations which have not been extended, no further action is needed.” – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, ALDAC, 6/24/09