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The Obama campaign has criticized the Bush administration for rebuffing offers from Tehran for comprehensive negotiations in 2003 and promised “tough, direct presidential diplomacy” with “preparations” but not “preconditions.”

“When President Bush decided we’re not going to talk to Iran … you know what happened?” Mr. Obama said in the candidates’ Oct. 7 debate. “Iran went from zero centrifuges to develop nuclear weapons to 4,000.”

Mr. McCain, in turn, has ridiculed Mr. Obama for offering to talk without requiring Iran to suspend uranium enrichment - the current U.S. position.

“What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a ‘stinking corpse,’ and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments,” Mr. McCain said in the candidates’ Sept. 26 debate.

However, in their debate Oct. 7 - after five previous secretaries of state endorsed engagement with Iran - Mr. McCain said he would authorize his secretary of state to talk with Tehran.

No matter who wins, “we’re likely to launch a new diplomatic initiative with Tehran,” Mr. Haass said.

The Bush administration may improve the climate for talks by asking Iran to allow U.S. diplomats to staff an interests section in Tehran and process visas for Iranians seeking to travel to the United States. A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the White House would make the request after the U.S. election. It is not clear how Iran would respond. U.S. diplomats have been absent from Iran since 1979. The U.S. official said he expected protracted bargaining.

At the same time, the administration has intensified economic sanctions against Iran - something both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama also favor.

Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iranian nuclear negotiators, said he sees little difference between the candidates.

“Iranians are yearning for a new [U.S.] president who is on the side of the Iranian people and reaches out to them and respects their rights instead of perpetuating the old language of coercive diplomacy,” Mr. Afrasiabi said. “Despite expectations that Obama will be better than McCain, his stated intention to toughen sanctions on Iran has dampened those expectations.”