By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plunged into her first day of intensive diplomacy yesterday, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of Britain and Germany and receiving a trip report from her Middle East envoy.
Clinton sought to assure European allies that the administration would closely coordinate with them on its emerging efforts to hold direct talks with Iran. She had pointed words about Iranian behavior on the same day that Tehran announced it had successfully sent its first domestically produced satellite into orbit using an Iranian-made long-distance missile.
"President Obama has signaled his intention to support tough and direct diplomacy with Iran, but if Tehran does not comply with United Nations Security Council and IAEA mandates, there must be consequences," Clinton said with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at her side. She used the abbreviation for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has unsuccessfully sought answers from Iran on its nuclear program.
During the Bush administration, the United States, along with Russian and China, joined a European-led effort to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions -- offering a choice of economic incentives or sanctions -- but then-President George W. Bush had set strict limits on the nature of the U.S. participation. The six nations demanded that Iran first suspend its nuclear enrichment activities before negotiations could begin, a stance that Iran repeatedly rejected, even as the allies greatly watered down the demands for suspension. The six nations also had trouble reaching agreement on tough sanctions when Iran failed to comply with their demands.
While European officials applauded Obama's willingness to loosen restraints on American officials talking with Iranian officials, there had been concerns that the United States would abandon the multilateral effort as it pursued its own direct diplomacy. But British Foreign Secretary David Miliband emerged from his meeting with Clinton saying she had made it clear the administration will move carefully and in close coordination with allies.
"The new administration's approach fits directly with the dual-track strategy that's been developed," Miliband told reporters outside the State Department. "It takes it to a new level," he said, noting that "they have said the hand of friendship is there if Iran is willing to unclench its fist. It is clear the international community is still waiting for Iran to unclench its fist." But, he stressed, based on his conversation with Clinton, that "there is absolutely no way that this administration intends to circumvent any of the multilateral approaches that have been developed."
As a first step, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns will meet in Germany today with counterparts of the five other nations, sketching out the administration's emerging approach to Iran and soliciting ways to integrate it with the multilateral effort. Clinton, discussing Burns's trip, told reporters, "Iran has an opportunity to step up and become a productive member of the international community."
Clinton also met with the administration's Middle East peace envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell, who returned this week from a week-long trip in the region. Clinton announced that Mitchell will return to the Middle East by the end of the month.
"The situation is obviously complex and difficult, and there are no easy or risk-free courses of action," Mitchell said. "But I'm convinced, after a week there, that my original assessment that with patient, determined and persevering diplomacy, we can help to make a difference and that we can assist those in the region achieve the peace and stability that people on all sides long for."
The whirlwind of meetings and news conferences comes as Clinton is putting the finishing touches on plans for her first overseas trip, which appears likely to focus on three crucial countries in Asia: Japan, China and South Korea.