The incoming Obama administration plans to create a new position to coordinate outreach to Iran and is considering a number of senior career diplomats, State Department officials and Iran specialists say.
President-elect Barack Obama promised during his campaign to seek dialogue with Iran without preconditions in an effort to persuade Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment program, but also has pledged to toughen sanctions.
A State Department official said the idea of naming a senior Iranian outreach coordinator was broached in the first transition meetings with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s choice for secretary of state, and her transition team earlier this month.
“The idea is that the position should build on the existing diplomatic framework,” the official said. He asked not to be named because a nominee has not been announced.
A spokeswoman for Mrs. Clinton declined to comment for this article. Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for the transition, also would not comment.
However, several Iran specialists said such a position was in the works.
“There is every indication that they are seriously considering going this way,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a group that has warned of the dangers of Iranian proliferation.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an organization that supports U.S.-Iran dialogue, said that a special envoy position for Iran is planned.
The current administration has refused to negotiate with Iran unless Tehran first suspends its uranium enrichment program. However, in July, Undersecretary of State William Burns attended a meeting in Geneva with an Iranian nuclear negotiator along with senior diplomats from the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, France, China and Russia - plus Germany.
The “P-5 plus 1” has sent envoys to Tehran and drafted three U.N. Security Council resolutions that have sanctioned organizations and individuals affiliated with the Iranian nuclear program.
However, Iran has refused to suspend its program. Indeed, two days after the Geneva talks, the head of Iran´s Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, announced the testing of an anti-ship missile he said could close the Straits of Hormuz, the chokepoint for 40 percent of the world’s oil supplies .
Critics of engagement doubt that Tehran will agree to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for economic and diplomatic concessions.
“We’ve lost the [nuclear] race with Iran,” said John R. Bolton, a former undersecretary of state and U.N. ambassador.
Others say the United States has not tried hard enough.
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution and former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff under the Bush administration, said creating a senior coordinator position was important in part because Iran policy is now subject to an unwieldy interagency process.
“There is a huge interagency component to this,” she said, noting that the Treasury Department has been responsible for numerous banking and other financial sanctions against Iran.
She also said that a senior coordinator position “communicates a seriousness on Iran, irrespective of what position you take.”
Coordinator positions traditionally are given to mid-level career diplomats, but in this case the job will likely to go a senior figure, the State Department official said. In addition to the nuclear issue, the coordinator will reach out to Iran regarding its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
A shortlist of candidates includes Dennis Ross, the former special envoy for Arab-Israeli negotiations under the Clinton and first Bush administrations, and the current U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker.
Mr. Crocker testified before Congress that Iran has supported Iraqi militants who have killed U.S. soldiers. However, from the fall of 2001 until late 2002, he took part in talks in Europe with senior Iranian diplomats over the aftermath of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has also met twice with Iran’s ambassador to Iraq.
Other names mentioned by U.S. officials and Iran specialists include Robert Galluci, President Clinton’s point man for negotiating a 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea. Also said to be on the list is Mr. Burns.
James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy who worked with the Iranians to prepare Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government, has also been mentioned. However, Mr. Dobbins said Thursday that he had not been approached by the Obama transition team.
He said a good first step would be to authorize U.S. diplomats around the world to talk to their Iranian counterparts on a routine basis.
Mr. Clawson said there are two models for dealing with the intricate diplomatic challenges presented by Iran.
One is to leave the coordination of policy to the assistant secretary of state for the region. This approach has been used for North Korea.
“This worked well with North Korea because the main countries concerned are under the same regional group as the problem country,” Mr. Clawson said.
“For Iran the main countries who need to be brought on board are scattered across the globe. … And so some kind of a coordinator or special envoy makes sense.”
Much about Mr. Obama’s Iran policy remains unclear as does Iran’s likely reaction to an offer of talks.
On Dec. 7 on NBC´s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Obama said he would offer both carrots and sticks to Iran, pointing out that Iran, a leading exporter of oil, still has trouble providing its population with refined petroleum.
The next day a spokesman for Iran´s ministry of foreign affairs, Hassan Qashqavi, said such a carrot-and-stick approach “is unacceptable and [has] failed.”
• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.