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Clinton says U.S. diplomacy unlikely to end Iran nuclear program

In a Mideast meeting, the secretary of State says a rejection by Iran could strengthen the U.S. position.

March 03, 2009|Paul Richter

SHARM EL SHEIK, EGYPT — The Obama administration has already concluded that a diplomatic overture to Iran, one of the central promises of the president's election campaign, is unlikely to persuade Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates in a private meeting Monday that it is "very doubtful" a U.S. approach will persuade Iran to relent, said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under customary diplomatic rules.

But Clinton, in Egypt for a conference to raise money for the war-scarred Gaza Strip, said an Iranian rebuff could strengthen America's diplomatic position.

She told Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah ibn Zayed al Nuhayyan that the move would quell complaints that the United States has not exhausted diplomatic routes. At the same time, it could help persuade U.S. allies to join it in increasing pressure on the Islamic regime.

Clinton said that Iran's "worst nightmare is an international community that is united and an American government willing to engage Iran," according to the State official. During the election campaign, President Obama made an overture to Iran one of his central foreign policy ideas, saying that engagement would be better than the Bush administration's policy of seeking to isolate adversary regimes. Bush refused to deal with Iran while the country's rulers pursued a nuclear program that they insist is intended for civilian energy but that U.S. officials and allies maintain is for producing the fuel for nuclear weapons.

Many foreign policy experts, including some in Democratic circles, have questioned whether talks alone would persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program.

Clinton's comments suggest that even as U.S. officials weigh a diplomatic overture, they have begun looking ahead to the next stage in dealing with Iran. The remarks also indicate that the administration believes it may need to press ahead with the diplomatic and economic pressures begun by the Bush administration.

The U.S. official said that Nuhayyan expressed concern over a U.S.-Iranian deal, which could leave Persian Gulf states with reduced Western support amid tensions with Tehran.

But he said Clinton assured the minister that the administration is "under no illusions" and would consult with allies in the region.

The new U.S. administration is considering several ways to try to engage Iran. Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, has said that he would like to enlist Iranian help to stabilize its neighbor to the east, Afghanistan. And Clinton last month named veteran Mideast negotiator Dennis B. Ross as a special advisor, with Iran as part of his assignment.

U.S. officials elsewhere sought to rekindle progress on international disarmament. In Vienna on Monday, the Obama administration disclosed plans to reduce its nuclear arsenal as a way of persuading other nations, including Iran, to scale back their own ambitions.

U.S. envoy Gregory L. Schulte, speaking in a closed-door meeting of the International Atomic Energy Association's board of governors, noted the new administration's "readiness for direct engagement with Tehran."

Schulte also said the U.S. would resurrect nuclear disarmament efforts that fell by the wayside during the Bush administration, including "dramatic reductions" in U.S. and Russian stockpiles and a ban on production of "new nuclear weapons material," according to a copy of his prepared remarks.

"President Obama supports the goal of working toward a world without nuclear weapons," he said. "His administration intends to renew America's commitment to disarmament."

The statement came a day after U.S. Navy Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iran had enough low-enriched uranium for a weapon, a conclusion also drawn by International Atomic Energy Agency officials last month.

An Iranian official Monday denied the claims as "baseless."

Clinton's comments about Iran came on the sidelines of a gathering in this Sinai resort of more than 75 countries for a Gaza Strip donors conference. Clinton told the group, "We are committed to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors, and we will pursue it on many fronts."

Her reference to a "comprehensive peace" hinted at U.S. interest in a deal between Israel and Syria, as well as between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Egyptian sponsors of the event said it brought pledges of $4.5 billion for humanitarian relief and reconstruction. But officials from Europe, Arab states and international organizations also demanded that Israel ease restrictions on border crossings to speed the delivery of relief supplies and rebuilding materials after a 22-day Israeli offensive aimed at stopping cross-border rocket fire from Gaza.

"The situation at the border crossings is intolerable," said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Officials at the conference also called for a settlement between the two rival Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah. Europeans warned they would not continue to fund reconstruction work unless Israelis and Palestinians tried to settle their differences.

"Will we once again reconstruct something that we built a few years ago and has now been hammered and flattened?" asked Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere. "Many donors, despite pledges, will wish to see political progress before they commit to infrastructure reconstruction."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Vienna contributed to this report.

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