WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday reaffirmed the U.S. offer to engage directly with Iran's leaders despite last month's post-election violence, but cautioned that the offer isn't open-ended, and urged Iran to respond soon.
"The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely," Clinton said.
As for the success of such talks, she acknowledged: "The prospects have certainly shifted" following Iran's use of violence to put down large protests against alleged vote fraud by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies.
The Obama administration faces growing domestic pressure to show its preferred strategy of diplomacy with Iran can produce results. President Barack Obama said last week that leading nations will re-evaluate the situation at a late September summit of the G-20 countries in Pittsburgh.
Clinton spoke about Iran as part of a foreign policy address, which attempted to lay out the principles that will guide U.S. foreign policy during the Obama years.
The speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington policy research organization, came against the backdrop of criticism that Clinton, partially sidelined by a broken elbow she suffered a month ago, has failed to put a personal imprint on American foreign policy and has been overshadowed by the White House.
Clinton aides sharply dispute that assessment, saying she's been active on many fronts, from handling the crisis in Honduras to overhauling U.S. foreign aid and diplomatic operations. She'll leave Thursday on a weeklong trip to India and Thailand.
In the speech, Clinton made clear that her and Obama's default method of dealing with global problems such as climate change, poverty and nuclear proliferation will be multilateral. The U.S., she said, will work through existing international institutions and new groupings of countries.
"Just as no nation can meet these challenges alone, no challenge can be met without America," she said.
A senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said the intent is different from former President George Bush's invocation of "coalitions of the willing" such as the narrow one that backed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"This is not a temporary coalition . . . to work with the United States on something the United States has already decided to do," the senior official said.
Clinton's speech, in fact, was peppered with jibes at Bush's foreign policy and the anti-Americanism it often engendered.
"No doubt we lost some ground in recent years, but the damage is temporary. It's kind of like my elbow — it's getting better every day," she said.
Yet the speech left unclear the foreign policy priorities of an administration that has been criticized for trying to do everything all at once, both at home and abroad.
The secretary of state said she had been cautioned by one of her predecessors, whom she did not name, "Don't try to do too much." She rejected that advice, however. "The world does not afford us the luxury of choosing or waiting," she said. "We must tackle the urgent, the important and the long-term all at once."
Clinton acknowledged the need for priorities — and then listed seven.
They are: stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; defeating terrorists and reaching out to the Muslim world; encouraging Middle East peace; spurring a global economic recovery; combating climate change; supporting democratic governments; and standing up for human rights.
On the Middle East, Clinton balanced U.S. pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank with a call for Arab states to take meaningful steps toward peace. With a nod to Israeli sensitivities, she said: "While we expect action from Israel, we recognize that these decisions are politically challenging."
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