Martin Indyk predicts that Obama and Clinton will make an effort to engage Iran, but may well fail. "Then, he's gonna be left with a very difficult decision in the first term of his Presidency."

Indyk was a top adviser to President Clinton from 1992-2000, and he was a key adviser to Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign. He was recently interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and made some interesting observations.

Martin Indyk joins Lateline, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Broadcast: 20/11/2008


TONY JONES: But they may have fundamental differences, and this could be the problem. I mean, for example, she was openly critical of Barack Obama when he said he'd be prepared to meet face-to-face with political leaders of America's enemies, like Iran and Syria, for example. Now, could you imagine Hillary Clinton having been so critical of that very notion, going along with any desire by him to actually reach out and have direct negotiations with America's enemies?

MARTIN INDYK: I think that is a critical question. As it turns out, she has favoured engagement with Iran. She agrees with the logic. She disagreed with the approach that Obama laid out early on in his campaign, when he said yes, you know, he would meet with the likes of Ahmadinejad and so on. So, what she took was a tactical difference and elevated it into a political point that she used to score against him, and it had its effect. But I don't think, in fact I know that she's not against the policy of trying to engage using diplomacy with the Iranian Government to try to head off their nuclear program and to try to get them to change their radical behaviour across the Middle East.

TONY JONES: OK. What about Barack Obama, though: do you think he's still prepared to contemplate direct negotiations with the Iranian leaders, for example - the very thing he talked about that would cause such a problem?

MARTIN INDYK: Oh yes. I believe it will be an early initiative of his to try to engage with the Government of Iran. He has a mandate for that, it was a part of his platform, he was attacked by Hillary Clinton and then by John McCain in the general election quite viciously on this issue, and he stood by it. So he can legitimately claim that he has a mandate to do it. On the other side, he's a young, new, untested, historic figure, as the first African-American President, who is going to go down into the Iranian bazaar and try to negotiate with some very difficult customers. And he runs the risk, on the one side, of appearing naive and on the other side, of failing to stop their nuclear program, and having, you know, Iran going nuclear on his watch. So, it's a high stakes game, but the reality is that engagement is something that will enjoy a broad consensus here in the United States because of the sense that all the other options are worse. And if he tries this and fails, which - and there's a good chance that he will fail, just because of the nature of the Iranian regime and its ambitions - then, he's gonna be left with a very difficult decision in the first term of his Presidency.

TONY JONES: Incidentally, do you think more broadly, he's got - he certainly has a different kind of appeal and a different kind of message for the Arab world and more generally to the Muslim world. What will that message be? How will it actually play out? What will the change be in America's foreign policy and approach to Muslim countries?

MARTIN INDYK: Yeah, I think that's fascinating. You did that clip on the message from Al Qaeda, calling him essentially an Uncle Tom, a house nigger, using racist epithets that are bound to go over very badly in the African-American community here. But I think they'll backfire in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It's clear that Al Qaeda is very concerned about the appeal that Barack Hussein Obama is gonna have to their core constituency. And, Obama understands it, and I believe he will reach out to them. He will speak to them. I think there will be, early on in his Presidency, some kind of address to the Muslim world; he will make clear that he's gonna work on the kind of hot button issues that Arab and Muslim public opinion care about, like the Palestinian issue. I believe he will shut down Guantanamo Bay prison there very early on, as quickly as he can. So there'll be a whole lot of things that he will be doing that will build on his amazing story that is very attractive, not just to the world in general, but to Arabs and Muslims in particular. They identify with him. They see him as a Muslim even though he's not. And the fact that he's risen to be the most powerful man in the world is mighty attractive to them and Al Qaeda knows it, that's why they're going after him in this way, trying to paint him in racist terms.

TONY JONES: Now - well here's another question: does this send shivers through the Israeli Government, who will be watching everything through the prism of the special relationship that they've had in the past with the United States - the United States which rarely ever puts serious pressure on Israel?

MARTIN INDYK: I think the Israeli default position was - is to prefer a Republican President because of the sense that they understand Israel's narrow margins of security and its need to use force. But, what we saw on his visit to Israel during the campaign was a clear attempt by Barack Obama to quiet the fears about him. It was a very successful visit. Every Israeli politician from Bibi Netanyahu to Zipi Livni, Eduard Barak, wanted their photo opportunities with him. And they understand what a phenomenon he represents. He, by the way, was elected with 78 per cent of the Jewish vote, even though there was an attempt to try to raise fears in the Jewish community in the United States about him. And so I think that there's a concern about a new President and how he'll behave. But interestingly, the head of Israeli military intelligence went public two days ago in Israel welcoming the idea of that Obama would try diplomatic engagement with Iran. This is a man who said that - previously, that it would be necessary to use military force against Iran's nuclear program. So, I think - the Israelis have come through a period in which George W Bush essentially gave them a blank check and stood by and let them fight it out. And they discovered in the last eight years that using force doesn't solve Israel's problems, especially when they're dealing with the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas and increasingly Al Qaeda. And so I think that they have learnt that they need an American President who can reach across the divide and try to garner support; a man who is I think fundamentally pro-Israel in his instincts, being able to speak to the Arab and Muslim world in the way that I believe Barack Obama will do effectively - and he is an amazing communicator - can be a real turbo boost to Israel's own efforts to try to achieve piece.