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Obama’s Iran dilemma: when to engage?

There seems to be a consensus in Washington about the United States’ need to engage in talks with Iran. But how and when? Peter Baker reports on the debate brewing over this latter question: Two leading research groups plan to issue a report Tuesday calling on him to move quickly to open direct diplomatic talks ...

There seems to be a consensus in Washington about the United States’ need to engage in talks with Iran. But how and when? Peter Baker reports on the debate brewing over this latter question:

Two leading research groups plan to issue a report Tuesday calling on him to move quickly to open direct diplomatic talks with Iran without preconditions.

The report by the groups, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, urges Mr. Obama to put all issues on the table with Iran, including its nuclear program. The proposal calls for "swift early steps" to exploit a "honeymoon" period between his inauguration and the internal political jockeying preceding Iran’s presidential elections in June.

The report breaks with experts on Iran who say Mr. Obama should wait until a clear winner emerges in Iran and calls instead for "treating the Iranian state as a unitary actor rather than endeavoring to play its contending factions against one another." The report also calls on him to back Israeli peace talks with Syria.

Karim Sadjadpour, a prominent Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has been arguing that the United States should "refrain from any grand overtures to Tehran" until after the Iranian elections. Sadjadpour worries that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president, would otherwise be able to say that his hardline policies brought the Great Satan to its knees.

The trick, then, is to show enough leg that you help bring a more responsible government to power in Tehran, but not so much that the United States looks weak. A delicate task, no doubt.

UPDATE: The report is here

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