There is broad consensus that one of the most immediate challenges for Hillary Clinton and her team, if she is confirmed as the next U.S. secretary of state, will be to find ways to respond to Iran's growing regional influence and curb that country's nuclear ambitions. There is far less unanimity over how those aims might be achieved.
President-elect Barack Obama has expressed concern over Tehran's sensitive nuclear activities, which have incurred three rounds of UN sanctions, and recently called Iran "a genuine threat to U.S. national security."
Obama reiterated in an interview on January 11 that his administration plans to move swiftly on a new approach to Iran that could include engagement.
Clinton offered fresher clues to senators at the start of her confirmation hearings. "No option is off the table," Clinton said, according to Reuters. "But we will pursue a new, different approach," she added. "What we have tried has not worked."
Ahead of the confirmation process to determine whether she would become America's top diplomatic, reports suggested Clinton was putting together a team of veteran Middle East experts to advise her on key issues, including Iran.
The advisers, as Obama put it in a recent interview, will be engaged in the "Middle East process as a whole" from day one.
Some analysts say Washington's new strategy toward Iran will depend on whether the Islamic republic is regarded as part of the problem or part of the solution in the Middle East.
Washington accuses Iran of secretly developing nuclear weapons -- a charge rejected by Iranian leaders, who say all the country's nuclear activities are peaceful. Iran is also accused of arming groups such as Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas. And there is Iran's growing influence in the region -- which many analysts believe has increased as a result of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the most conspicuous issues is whether the new U.S. administration will have direct diplomat contact with Tehran, and on what level.
"We will do everything we can pursue through diplomacy, through the use of sanctions, through creating better coalitions with countries that we believe also have a big stake in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon power," Clinton said at her confirmation hearing, according to Reuters. When pressed, she vowed that the administration would have an attitude "that might bear fruit," but she noted that "we have no illusions."
There has been speculation that the new administration could make a gesture by sending diplomats to Tehran. It is still unclear whether Clinton will move forward with a recent proposal to open a U.S. interest section in Tehran. That plan was discussed by the Bush administration months ago but then left for the future president to decide.
Obama's administration will also have to decide whether it wants to continue the covert operations reportedly authorized by his predecessor.
Some Old, Some New?
In general, the new U.S. administration is widely expected to engage in aggressive diplomacy with Iran, using bigger carrots but also bigger sticks.
"Iran is a genuine threat to U.S. national security," Obama said on January 10, "but I have also said that we should be willing to initiate diplomacy as a mechanism to achieve our national-security goals."
Rasool Nafisi, a Washington-based Iran expert and university professor, tells RFE/RL that Iran could face tougher sanctions -- including a blockade of Iran's gasoline exports as suggested by Obama during the presidential campaign.
"It seems that tough measures will be used in dealing with Iran," Nafisi says. "Unlike the past, there will be less tendency toward a military solution but more talks -- and if the two sides don't reach an agreement, then tough sanctions will follow."
Reports say that former senior diplomat Dennis Ross has been tabbed to serve in the new U.S. administration as a top envoy on Iran and the Middle East.
Ross, who served as an adviser on the Middle East to Obama during the campaign, wrote in the December 8 issue of "Newsweek" that Iran has continued to pursue nuclear weapons because the Bush administration didn't apply enough pressure or enough rewards for reversing course.
Ross has some 12 years of experience in Middle East peacemaking efforts, although he has no direct experience with Iran. Ross was among the main signers of the Bipartisan Policy Center's that said Iran's nuclear development may pose the most significant strategic threat to the United States during the next administration.
The report also said that while the current diplomatic approach has not succeeded, it is still not too late for sanctions and economic coercion to work.
The reported choice of Ross as the Iran coordinator seems to be unpopular in the Islamic republic.
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, recently called Ross "a staunch supporter of the Zionist regime" whose approach to Tehran would not be constructive. In a December 24 commentary, the agency said Ross's appointment would signal an anti-Iranian stance in the next U.S. administration and a tendency to follow Israel's interests.
Talk of Clinton's nomination as U.S. secretary of state was also met with pessimism, with some observers saying the change promised by Obama during his election campaign will fail to materialize.
During the presidential campaign in which she ran against Obama, Clinton threatened to "obliterate" Iran if it used nuclear weapons against Israel. The comments were condemned by Tehran, which sent a complaint to the United Nations.
Wait And See
On January 12, Iran's Foreign Ministry said it was watching to see if Obama's remarks about engagement lead to "essential change" in U.S. policy toward Tehran.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi said that if there was real change, Iran would take the appropriate, and corresponding, actions.
"Many times, we've said that we will see in what form this change will take place," Qashqavi said. "Is it a fundamental change in the behavior and stance of the United States in relation to the Islamic Republic of Iran, or not?"
So far, increased international isolation, UN sanctions, and financial measures taken by the United States against Iranian banks have failed to convince Tehran to halt its uranium-enrichment program.
It is unclear that Iran's leaders are prepared to give up the country's nuclear-enrichment program, which they describe as a "red line" that cannot be crossed.
"The Islamic republic will not show any flexibility and it won't change course," says professor Ahmad Naghibzadeh, who teaches political science at Tehran University. "[Iranian leaders believe] the international community should accept the Islamic republic as it is; a government that is in favor of talks and negotiations and diplomacy [would show flexibility]."
The Bush administration long insisted on a halt to Iran's enrichment activities as a precondition for direct talks, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat in as an observer in direct Iranian-European talks on the nuclear issue in mid-2008.
"This is an ideological government," Naghibzadeh says. "They say, 'This is how we are, they should accept us as we are -- [and] it's the other side that should show flexibility.'"
Other observers contend there is no genuine consensus in Tehran at this point on which path to choose.
While Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad congratulated Obama on his election, it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the last say on all state matters -- and he has remained silent.
In a further indication of the mindset within official circles, one of Khamenei's representatives in the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Ali Shirazi, was quoted by Iran's semiofficial Fars News agency on January 12 as saying that "a velvet revolution in Iran " remains on the agenda of "the enemy."
Radio Farda correspondent Mohammad Zarghami contributed to this report