Israel and the US’s European allies intend privately to make clear their concerns about Barack Obama’s policies on Iran when the US Democratic presidential candidate makes a much-heralded trip overseas in coming days.
Mr Obama’s tour of the Middle East and Europe, which is expected to start towards the end of the week, is likely to be one of the most important and high-profile events of his campaign, as he seeks to bolster his national security credentials and demonstrate his popularity outside the US.
But his tour coincides with rising tensions in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme and concern in Israel, Britain and France, in particular, over the candidate’s willingness to begin formal negotiations with Tehran without preconditions. “We can’t give up too much on Iran too soon,” said one western diplomat, reflecting fears that unconditional talks would allow Tehran to play for time.
Israel will emphasise its growing anxiety that Iran is getting closer to nuclear weapons capacity by continuing to enrich uranium, warning that there is little time left to convince Tehran to stop, according to diplomats.
Mr Obama vowed during the Democratic primaries to enter unconditional negotiations with Iran, but western diplomats have been reassured by his more cautious tone since winning the nomination, declaring that Tehran posed a “great threat” and calling for tougher international sanctions.
Western diplomats said their governments viewed Mr Obama’s trip as an opportunity to learn more detail of his policies and to set out their own priorities. European leaders are anxious to start forging a personal relationship with the senator, aware that he has fewer ties to the continent than John McCain, his Republican presidential rival.
Mr Obama is expected to spend a week overseas, with stops in Germany, France, the UK, Israel and Jordan – although the schedule has not been announced. It is widely expected that Iraq and Afghanistan will be added to the itinerary as the senator has pledged to visit both war zones before the end of summer.
A stop in Iraq would be the source of closest attention in the US, amid hints that Mr Obama could “refine” his plans to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months of taking office.
Reservations in official circles overseas about Mr Obama are likely to be offset by an enthusiastic popular reception. A Pew survey of 24,000 people in 24 countries released last month showed Mr Obama preferred to Mr McCain in almost every country. Political leaders from the left and right are eager to meet the senator during his trip, aware that his appeal spans the political spectrum outside the US.
Norm Ornstein, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said images of Mr Obama being greeted warmly overseas would burnish his potential to restore US standing in the world.
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