US policy towards Iran shaping up
The Obama administration is finalising its policy for engaging Iran.
The approach is likely to involve a combination of small steps to initiate contact between the two countries and may include an overture in the form of a letter to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, according to Western diplomats and senior US officials.
A senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that he expected the letter to be sent to Mr Khamenei before the Iranian elections this summer, although Washington's allies would prefer this step to be taken after the vote, to avoid influencing the election.
The last time reports about a letter to Iran circulated, the White House emphatically denied it.
But last week a State Department spokesman said he did not have anything to say about a letter, adding that he would not discuss the options being considered. He then referred reporters to the White House.
A similar type of letter was drafted during the Bush administration but never sent.
US officials insist that no final decisions have been made and no announcements are expected for at least another 10 days while Dennis Ross - the top official in charge of reviewing US policy towards Iran - conducts an assessment.
Even after his policy review is finalised, it is unclear how much of it will be made public.
"Iran recognises that its regional influence derives in large measure from its defiance of the United States, so Iran would prefer not to publicly advertise its discussions with the United States unless or until real progress has been made," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad will have to strike a delicate balance, where his most powerful backers are anti-American while a lot of Iranian people are favourably inclined to the US."
The engagement with Tehran started with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's public invitation to Tehran to attend a conference in the Hague on 31 March to discuss Afghanistan.
The invitation was in line with what has been Mrs Clinton's general approach to diplomacy - focus on areas of overlapping concern to help foster dialogue in the build-up to tougher discussions.
This would allow the two countries, which have had little contact in 30 years, to "reacquaint themselves with each other" and slowly build trust before any
substantive discussions, according to Mr Sadjadpour.
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