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Time for talk with Iran may be over

President Obama's long-held hope of engaging Tehran about its nuclear program appears to be fading.

September 26, 2009|Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — President Obama has maintained that he would not wait forever for Iran to decide whether it will negotiate over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

It appears that the wait is about over.

As he met with world leaders in New York and Pittsburgh this week, Obama gave the clearest signals yet that he's giving up on one of his trademark campaign themes, engagement with Iran, in favor of pursuing tough economic sanctions.

Obama says he still harbors hopes for next week's meeting between the Iranians and world powers, but he spent hours this week lobbying Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao at the United Nations to give up their long-standing resistance to sanctions.

On Friday, Obama and European allies rolled out what they hope is their most convincing argument yet on Iranian intentions: intelligence suggesting that a previously undisclosed site is intended to house a uranium enrichment plant capable of helping build at least one nuclear bomb a year.

When Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeared before a worldwide television audience, their message was clear: Despite its denials, Iran is intent on gaining the ability to build a bomb.

The disclosure has abruptly changed the diplomatic climate surrounding the issue.

"Knowledge is power, and today's knowledge has given Obama a lot of power in the upcoming negotiations with Iran and in his effort to rally support for sanctions if negotiations fail," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst based in Israel.

"This has greatly damaged Iran's credibility," said Javedanfar, director of Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Co.

Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesman, said Friday's revelation by Obama showed that world powers understand the threat Iran poses.

"This is the moment of truth for the international community," Regev said. "It must make the Iranians understand that it's in their interest to end that program. If not now, when?"

Analysts question whether Iran's hard-line leadership is susceptible to international pressure, and whether the international community can hold together to impose harsh sanctions such as banning exports of refined petroleum products to Iran.

But Tehran's traditional defenders will have a more difficult time refusing to line up with those who want to toughen U.N. sanctions.

One of the keys is Russia, which has extensive commercial ties to Iran. Although Russia has vacillated in recent days, the Kremlin was firm on Friday.

"Iran's construction of a uranium enrichment plant violates decisions of the United Nations Security Council," it said in an official statement. The White House was quick to seize on the international shift. At a briefing for reporters, administration officials said they would continue to follow a two-track strategy -- trying to line up international support for tougher sanctions, while hoping that Iran will relent. Suddenly, however, officials were talking about engagement in the past tense.

One senior administration official told reporters that an offer of incentives to Iran "was made repeatedly."

"The Iranians refused to meet, refused to accept this offer," the official said.

Obama's pivot came at the end of a long review of administration thinking on Iran.

Outreach to U.S. adversaries was a signature campaign issue for Obama. During a Democratic presidential debate in July 2007, his chief adversary and now secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, argued that such an approach might be unwise.

It was "disgraceful," Obama said then, that the George W. Bush administration hadn't sought a dialogue with countries such as Iran.

Nonetheless, a senior White House official who discussed Iran policy on condition of anonymity said Friday that Obama had never intended to look away from Iran's transgressions and "do talks for the sake of talks."

In the aftermath of the bitterly contested June presidential election in Iran, Obama administration officials watched to see whether divisions would make the hard-line leadership more resistant to compromise or more eager for greater accord with the West to help it build domestic support.

The administration seems to be discarding the optimistic scenario.

"They don't care about public pressure," said Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations who advised the administration until a few weeks ago. As demonstrated by the Iranian leadership's reaction to the huge crowds that took to the streets of Iran to protest the election outcome, Takeyh said, "they're indifferent."

But if the week's events opened a path to international action on Iran, it still promises to be an uphill climb.

The Russians are sounding more supportive. China, the other key international player, sounded distinctly less enthusiastic -- although it generally does not stand in the way of a strong consensus among other major powers.

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