Obama's outreach to Iran could stall over nuclear issue

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 10, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In its latest offer for talks with the leading world powers, Iran makes no promise to negotiate on its suspected nuclear weapons program, further complicating President Barack Obama's hopes of starting negotiations with Tehran before the end of the month, the State Department and European diplomats said Thursday.

U.S. and European officials said they're still studying the Iranian offer, the exact terms of which haven't been made public, and hope to draw Iran into talks by late September.

However, Iran, while open to talks on other issues, so far has given no sign that it's ready to discuss even a temporary halt to its enrichment of uranium that could be used to fuel a nuclear weapon. There's limited international support for tougher economic sanctions on Iran, and even less for the most extreme measure, military action to destroy the country's nuclear facilities.

"In the package yesterday, Iran reiterated its view that, as far as it is concerned, its nuclear file is closed," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, referring to a document the Iranians delivered on Wednesday.

"We remain open to direct dialogue with Iran," Crowley said. "We will be testing that willingness to engage in the next few weeks."

Obama came into office promising to overturn his predecessor's policy of vilifying Iran. He's reached out to leaders in Tehran on multiple occasions and adhered to that policy even as the Iranian government violently crushed wide-scale protests over a June election that opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad say was stolen.

Obama and his advisers could soon face tough decisions on Iran if no breakthrough occurs before the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York and an economic summit meeting in Pittsburgh, both in late September.

U.S. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the U.S. and its European allies are likely to decide how to proceed in the days ahead.

The White House has proposed "crippling" sanctions, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, if diplomacy fails to stop Iran's suspected drive for a nuclear weapon. Iran says it wants nuclear power for civilian purposes to generate electricity.

Obama and Clinton, however, may face the same deep international divisions President George W. Bush did. Russia Thursday adopted a sharply different and more upbeat tone about the Iranian proposal, which diplomats said runs to 10 pages.

"Based on a brief review of the Iranian papers, my impression is there is something there to use," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow, in remarks reported by the Reuters news agency.

Russia wouldn't support the toughest sanctions on Iran that have been proposed informally, such as a ban on oil exports or importation of refined petroleum products, he said. Despite being a major oil producer, Iran has limited refining capacity and imports much of its refined petroleum.

"The most important thing is Iran is ready for a comprehensive discussion of the situation, what positive role it can play in Iraq, Afghanistan and the region," Lavrov said.

He apparently referred to parts of the Iranian proposal in which Tehran offers to cooperate in Afghanistan, in fighting terrorism and related issues.

The U.S. and five other nations told Iran in April that they're willing to have such wide-ranging talks, to include Iran's security concerns, but that they must include the nuclear issue.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, meanwhile, said that Ahmadinejad wouldn't be invited to a reception Obama will host while attending the U.N. meetings in New York.

"Iran is failing to live up to its international obligations," Gibbs said, adding, "There are others that might miss out on the hors d'oeuvres."

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Check out McClatchy's national security blog: Nukes & Spooks

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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