Monday, March 30, 2009

Diplomacy with Iran -- and Cuba

During last year’s campaign, President Obama expressed a willingness to engage in diplomacy with Cuba. Here’s how he addressed the issue in a speech last May:

“After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

He has yet to fill in the blanks, such as who in his Administration would propose to talk with Cuban officials – or when, where, and on which topics talks would take place.

When it comes to Iran, another country that has the “state sponsor of terrorism” designation and where President Obama criticized the Bush Administration’s approach, the blanks are beginning to be filled in.

Iranian and U.S. diplomats are discussing Afghanistan issues face-to-face, and the President addressed Iran’s people and government leaders in a March 20 video message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year.

The President spoke respectfully, referring to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” and seeking “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” to address “the full range of issues before us.” He stated no preconditions regarding human rights practices or any other issue, although it’s clear that Iran’s nuclear program remains a top concern for the United States. He held out the prospect of a future with “renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce.” He praised Iran’s culture and achievements and invoked the “humanity that we all share” as he sought “the promise of a new beginning.”

There’s no way to tell if this message gives clues about a future approach to Cuba, and U.S. relations with Cuba are quite different than the non-relationship with Iran.

American and Cuban diplomats have direct channels of communication through diplomatic missions in each other’s capitals, and there are channels of limited cooperation (drugs, migration) that even the Bush Administration kept in operation.

In Cuba’s case, the ties between the peoples are much closer.

Cuba constituted a security threat in the past, while Iran represents one now, and has directly threatened our ally, Israel.

Above all, Cuba has no nuclear program – which means that diplomacy with Cuba offers no big payoff in terms of international security. On the other hand, it wouldn’t demand lots of high-level attention, especially if it were to focus initially on matters that affect the neighborhood.

When the Obama Administration makes its decision, it will answer several questions. Does it make sense to talk to the entire Caribbean region about drugs, migration, and other local security issues, but not to Cuba? Does it make sense not to talk about protecting the marine environment with a neighbor that is preparing to drill for offshore oil? Can the President better advance his concerns about human rights in Cuba through direct talks, or only through public statements? And as the Administration builds its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, does it want to use a new approach to Cuba as a sign of change.

Vice President Biden talked about a “transition” in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Even if the embargo is to remain, opportunities abound.

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