- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

The board of governors of the world’s nuclear watchdog meets next week in Vienna, Austria, to discuss Iran, but the Obama administration may not have much to say.

Focused on domestic economic issues and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration is still putting in place the personnel to draft policy on Iran.

At the center of the policy review will be Dennis Ross, a former lead negotiator on Arab-Israeli issues under the Clinton administration and adviser to candidate Barack Obama.

On Monday evening, the State Department issued a press release naming Mr. Ross special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Gulf region and southwestern Asia - a vague title that department spokesman Robert Wood later said encompasses Iran.

A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Mr. Ross will be helping prepare a national security policy directive on Iran that will outline both how to approach negotiations and additional financial sanctions if necessary.

There are few indications so far of specifics in a situation complicated by Iran’s upcoming presidential elections and Israel’s apparent choice of a hawkish new administration.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama said he favored talks without preconditions but did not specify who would be talking with whom.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Mr. Ross worked before rejoining the State Department, predicted that the Obama administration will pursue talks directly with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as opposed to waiting to see whether Iranians elect a former president, Mohammad Khatami, to a new term in June.

“Khatami has a record of not being able to accomplish very much,” Mr. Clawson said. “The key decision maker is Khamenei and not the Iranian president. Therefore, U.S. policy should concentrate on how to engage with the supreme leader.”

The most pressing issue for negotiations likely will be the nuclear issue, although U.S. officials also want to talk to Iran about Afghanistan, Iraq and Tehran’s support for groups that have opposed Arab-Israeli peace.

The latest assessment from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran underestimated its production of low-enriched uranium and actually had 2,222 pounds as of the end of January.

That’s enough material, if further refined, to build a bomb, said David Albright, a former IAEA inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank.

At the same time, the latest IAEA report said Iran has not installed as many centrifuges - the spinning machines that enrich uranium - as it could and is not using all of the several thousand it possesses to enrich uranium.

Iran’s efforts to construct a nuclear warhead also are unclear.

The Obama administration has stuck by a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that says Iran halted efforts to design a nuclear warhead in 2003 and had not resumed work by mid-2007.

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