Experts urge Obama to rethink Iran policy

WASHINGTON, Nov 14 (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama must rethink U.S. policy toward Iran, eschewing confrontation and failed attempts to isolate Tehran through sanctions, according to a group of experts and former diplomats.

Tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions will be one of Obama's main foreign policy challenges after he takes office on Jan. 20. He has said he would harden sanctions but has also held out the possibility of direct talks.

The panel of 20 experts, who include academics and former U.S. ambassadors, warned against a military attack on Iran and called for unconditional negotiations, saying it was the only viable option to break "a cycle of threats and defiance".

"An attack would almost certainly backfire ... and long experience has shown that prospects for successfully coercing Iran through achievable economic sanctions are remote at best," they said in a joint statement to be presented to a conference on the future of U.S.-Iran relations next week.

The panel includes former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering, and a host of Middle East scholars from U.S. universities.

The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran after its Islamic Revolution and is spearheading a drive to isolate the country over its nuclear activities. Washington accuses Iran of seeking to build a nuclear bomb, a charge Tehran denies.

President George W. Bush labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil", although U.S. officials recently floated the idea of opening a diplomatic interests section in Tehran.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, last week congratulated Obama on his election and called for "fundamental and fair" changes to U.S. policies in the Middle East. Iranian officials have also called for the lifting of sanctions.

In their statement to be presented to the National Iranian American Council, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization, the experts said an Obama administration needed to develop a new strategy to deal with Iran.

"Open the door to direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations at the senior diplomatic level where personal contacts can be developed, intentions tested, and possibilities explored on both sides," they said.

They called on the United States to replace calls for regime change with a long-term strategy, allow Iran a "place at the table" in shaping the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, offer security assurances in the nuclear talks and re-energize the Arab-Israeli peace process. (Reporting by Ross Colvin; Editing by Anthony Boadle)