Pressure grows on Obama to engage Iran directly

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 3, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry praised President Barack Obama's desire to have direct negotiations with Iran, but warned Tuesday that he must be prepared to do more than talk as Tehran forges ahead with its nuclear program.

"While Iran was just talking to the world, it moved to the threshold of becoming a nuclear state," Kerry, D-Mass., said during a hearing on Iran. "I point this out because we cannot move forward to a solution without understanding how we got to this dangerous juncture in history. The time for incremental steps and unanswered questions is over."

Tuesday's hearing came amid growing concerns about Iran's nuclear program after the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report two weeks ago revealing that Iran has enough low-enriched, or reactor-grade nuclear fuel to build a weapon.

Also contributing to the unease Tuesday were reports that blueprints of one of two helicopters used in the U.S. presidential fleet were found in a computer in Iran after they were accidentally disclosed by a U.S. defense contractor last year.

"Iran is important, Iran is dangerous, Iran is urgent, and we have no choice but to deal with Iran, despite the negatives," Frank G. Wisner II, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, told the committee. "In short, if we're to make any progress with the questions that we face in Iraq, Afghanistan, with the nuclear questions, energy issues, Israel-Palestine, we have to be able to take Iran into account and deal with it."

At an IAEA meeting in Vienna on Tuesday, the U.S. and five other countries reinforced their commitment to direct talks with Iran after voicing "serious concern" about Iran's nuclear progress and growing restrictions on U.N. inspectors.

"(We) urge Iran to take this opportunity for engagement with us and thereby maximize opportunities for a negotiated way forward," Olivier Caron, France's IAEA governor, said on behalf of France, the U.S., Britain, Germany, Russia and China.

A senior State Department official said on Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is traveling in the Middle East, doubts that Iran will respond to U.S. diplomatic overtures.

Still, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the State Department's director of policy and planning from 2001 to 2003, said he believes that Russia could assist Washington in its outreach to Iran.

Obama sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this month that raises the prospect of scrapping U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe in return for Moscow's help on Iran. At a joint White House news conference Tuesday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama was asked about that letter.

"To the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for, or the need for a missile defense system," Obama said, inviting Moscow to help in its own interest.

The Bush White House developed plans to construct a missile base in Poland and a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic. The plans enraged former Russian President Vladimir Putin so much that he once threatened to aim Russia's nuclear missiles toward Europe in response.

Kerry said the U.S. must not be lured into protracted negotiations with Iran. A timetable must be established and consequences set if progress isn't made, he said.

"I mean tougher economic sanctions, further restrictions on trade and finance, which will apply meaningful pressure on the Iranian regime at a time when oil prices have plummeted and its economy is hurting," Kerry said.

At the committee hearing, a panel of Middle East experts and former U.S. ambassadors suggested other steps for dealing with Iran. Haass said the U.S. should abandon any hope for regime change within Iran.

"Regime change is a wish, not a strategy," Haass said. "We need to have a strategy."

Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested that the U.S. and Iran build trust by working on issues of common interest — Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"If Iran's nuclear ambitions do indeed reflect a sense of insecurity vis-a-vis the United States, building cooperation and goodwill in Iraq and Afghanistan could set a new tone and context for the relationship, which could allay Tehran's threat perception and compel its leaders to reassess their nuclear approach," Sadjadpour told the committee.

The Obama administration might make progress with Iran if it sidesteps Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and deals directly with the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Dealing with the cleric, however, won't be easy.

"After three decades of being immersed in a 'death to America' culture, it may not be possible for Khamenei to reinvent himself at age 69," Sadjadpour said. "But if there's one thing that is tried and true, it's that an engagement approach toward Iran that aims to ignore, bypass or undermine Khamenei is guaranteed to fail."

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