Talks between US and Iran haunted by difficult history

By Matthew Lee ,AP

LONDON — Bill Clinton tried. So did George W. Bush. Neither succeeded. As U.S. President Barack Obama’s own second term winds down, he is getting closer than either of his immediate predecessors to the goal of improving U.S. relations with Iran. But he’s not there yet, and plenty stands in the way, including a messy and brutal conflict in Iraq and Syria.

As high-stakes negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program resumes Tuesday in Vienna ahead of a Nov. 24 deadline for a deal, the ghosts of previous failed attempts at American-Iranian rapprochement loom large. So do very real and current concerns, largely the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, fierce opposition to a deal from Israel and open hostility in Congress and hard-liners in Iran who already look to be trying to derail a potential agreement.

Those issues, combined with the complex nature of the negotiations, have made for slow going and increased chances for something less than a full deal being struck by the target date. Officials say an extension of the already once-extended talks is possible, but warn additional delays will invite more complications.

Obama and his top aides deny that anything other than resolving the nuclear deadlock is in play. Yet, they also acknowledge a deal is key to any broader improvement in relations, something Obama is reported to have conveyed in a recent letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.

Though it hangs over the process, what appears to be a shared U.S.-Iranian interest in defeating Islamic State (IS) has been raised only tangentially. The Obama administration’s goal is to ultimately defeat the militants, whose rise it blames on atrocities committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad and the failure of the previous leadership in Iraq.

Iran shares America’s goal of defeating IS, but while it may have acquiesced to the ouster of pro-Iranian Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki earlier this year, it has not given up on Assad, who the U.S. insists must go.

Hence, Obama is treading carefully as many demand more be done to get rid of Assad. He has rejected suggestions that more U.S. aid to Syrian rebels is aimed at toppling Assad.

The U.S.-Iran divergence on Assad alone would be problematic, but it’s far from the only non-nuclear point of contention.