Obama wins praise for orchestrating response to Iran

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 25, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama always said he'd be willing to meet with rogue nations such as Iran without preconditions, but he never said he wouldn't try to set the stage.

The revelation Friday that Iran has a secret nuclear facility capped a calculated effort by Obama to build pressure against Iran days before a multinational confrontation over its nuclear plans on Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland.

For weeks, Obama played a form of international chess to build a unified multi-national front against Iran while preserving the option to talk and negotiate. He abandoned plans for a ballistic missile defense in Europe, apparently in part to win Russian cooperation, slapped tariffs on Chinese tires, arguably to prod them along, then huddled with their leaders and finally rolled out the news that he'd held close to the vest for months — that Iran has a secret uranium enrichment plant.

"This is a very clever way of doing it," said Fariborz Ghadar, a professor at Penn State University and Iran scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"We've been taking baby steps. Now we have the Oct. 1 meeting coming up and we have an ace in the hole, knowing that these guys have been cheating again. He played the cheating card. They're making Iran look really bad."

How long Obama will keep negotiating, and whether there's some point at which he'd stop talking and take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, however, is unknown.

Rather than canceling the Oct. 1 Geneva meeting between officials of Iran and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S., as some neoconservatives argued he should, Obama incorporated the meeting into his negotiating strategy.

All along, he appears to have been working to assemble a unified international response to Iran, including not just close allies such as Britain and France but also major powers such as China and Russia that have been reluctant to support tough sanctions against Iran.

Whether Obama chose to release the information this week or was forced to do it wasn't clear. Iran, apparently aware that U.S., British and French intelligence had discovered its secret plant, sent a letter Monday to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency reporting what it called a "pilot" plant.

Regardless, the world didn't learn of the plant until Obama announced it in a joint appearance in Pittsburgh Friday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Presenting several voices was an important step, said former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"The United States doesn't have to say everything every time," he said. "We need to let other countries come forward and express their outrage."

Those allies aren't enough, however, he added. "China and Russia have to be on board, being united here is absolutely imperative," Nunn said. "The fact that Russia has issued a strong statement . . . we are in far better position now than we were four or five months ago."

The effort to get Russia on board may have included Obama's decision this month to abandon a U.S. missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. The system was aimed at protecting Europe from Iran but was seen as a threat by Russia.

Although Obama administration officials said the decision was never part of a bargain with Russia and was merely a move to a more efficient Navy-based missile defense, analysts think it was aimed at least in part at winning Russian support against Iran.

Then, Obama raised the ante by telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the discovery during a half-hour meeting Wednesday in New York.

Meeting with students in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Medvedev joked when asked about Iran that it felt like he was still in his meeting with Obama. The Russian leader said that he'd told Obama that Iran "has a right to its own peaceful nuclear program" and that he didn't think sanctions were the best response.

He said the international community would consider sanctions or other punitive measures, but only after trying "positive incentives" to get Iran to drop the weapons program.

On Friday morning, the Kremlin issued a terse statement calling on Iran to provide proof that the plant is being used only for peaceful purposes by Thursday, when Iran is scheduled to meet with the U.S., Russia and four other countries in Geneva.

"There has been a softening in the Russian position as result of the move the administration made on ballistic missile defense," said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Republican-affiliated policy organization. "The Russians, if the deal is good for them, will throw the Iranians under the bus."

Dubowitz also said that Obama likely imposed tariffs on Chinese tires earlier this month to pressure China to go along with international efforts against nuclear weapons development both Iran and North Korea.

"The leverage we have over the Chinese is access to our market," he said. "That was a shot across the bow to the Chinese."

Obama discussed Iran in depth with Chinese President Hu Jintao when they met for an hour on Tuesday in New York — White House aides said that Obama stressed that Iran is a "vital" issue to the U.S. He didn't, however, mention the news about the secret Iranian nuclear plant.

Instead, Obama pulled Hu aside at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh Friday morning, engaging in a four-minute talk that was described as very serious.

"China is just now fully absorbing these latest revelations," said a senior Obama administration official, who requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity. "I think we should stay tuned for the Chinese position in the coming days."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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