Clinton Pessimistic on Iran Outreach

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, March 2 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday expressed doubts in a private meeting with an Arab counterpart that the Obama administration's outreach to Iran would be successful.

Clinton "said she is doubtful that Iran will respond to any kind of engagement and opening the hand out and reaching out to them," said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because he was describing a closed-door conversation.

Clinton made the remarks in a meeting with Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, during an international donors' conference for Gaza at this Red Sea resort.

Nahayan told Clinton he was worried the administration would cut a deal with Iran without properly consulting with Persian Gulf allies, the U.S. official said. "We will be consulting with regional leaders and listening," the official quoted Clinton as saying in response. "She said we are under no illusions about Iran and our eyes are wide open."

At a news conference Monday night, Clinton declined to discuss her conversation with Nahayan, saying it was private. But her remarks seem to offer some evidence of a debate within the administration over the overture to Iran -- a major theme of President Obama's presidential campaign -- and whether it will succeed in easing a quarter-century of antagonism between the two countries.

Clinton last week named veteran diplomat Dennis Ross as her special adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia -- largely a euphemism for Iran. Ross has written that if an overture to Iran were not reciprocated, it would strengthen the United States' efforts to stiffen international sanctions intended to pressure Iran to end its nuclear program. Iran says it is developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but the United States, Israel and other countries are worried that the country seeks to build nuclear weapons.

Persian Gulf allies have become increasingly alarmed by Tehran's growing regional power during the Bush years, helped by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, its one-time rival, and the growing strength of Iranian-backed movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.

During a speech at the conference, designed to raise funds for Gazan humanitarian aid and reconstruction after a 22-day war with Israel left much of the territory in ruins, Clinton said the administration is committed to achieving "a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and we will pursue it on many fronts."

Her statement suggested the Obama administration is interested in seeking peacemaking opportunities apart from stalemated Israeli-Palestinian discussions, such as a peace between Israel and Syria.

Indirect talks between the long-time antagonists have been held in recent months with the assistance of Turkey, which Clinton will visit late this week. The Bush administration largely cut off relations with Syria but a senior U.S. diplomat last week held exploratory talks with the Syrian ambassador at the State Department. Clinton also spoke briefly to her Syrian counterpart during lunch Monday.

"Time is of the essence," Clinton emphatically declared in her speech. "We cannot afford more setbacks and delays, or regrets about what might have been had different decisions been made."

Later, at the news conference, Clinton spoke with such emotion about resolving the conflict -- "this is something in my heart; it is not just in my portfolio" -- that Arab journalists erupted in applause.

Clinton, as expected, announced $300 million in humanitarian relief for Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, and $600 million in aid for the Palestinian Authority, which is run by Fatah, a rival Palestinian faction. She cast the funding as an effort to help all Palestinians, not to divide them. There will be strict limits on the funds -- which must be approved by Congress -- to prevent any from reaching Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization. The group won Palestinian elections in 2006.

Egyptian officials said more than $4 billion was raised from the 75 countries and organizations attending the conference, but many Arab countries have a poor record of fulfilling pledges to the Palestinians. It is also difficult to discern how much of the money consisted of previous pledges -- or whether much of the reconstruction money can be spent soon.

Israel maintains tight control of most crossings into Gaza in order to thwart efforts by Hamas to rearm itself, banning or restricting the importation of cement, steel rods and other materials necessary for construction. The blockade is also intended to persuade Gazans to reject Hamas.

Neither Israel nor Hamas was invited to the conference, but a parade of presidents, foreign ministers and other dignities called on Israel to open up the borders.

"The situation at the border crossings is intolerable. Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told donors.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy also urged Israel to open the border crossings, declaring, "Gaza should not actually be a prison with open skies."

Hamas and Israel have held indirect talks brokered by Egypt that might open border crossings, focusing largely on a prisoner swap. Egypt has also kept the border closed on its side of Gaza, insisting that forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not Hamas, monitor the crossing.

In her speech, Clinton referred only obliquely to Israel's control of the border crossings, as well as issues such as settlement expansion and roadblocks in the West Bank that Palestinians say have hampered peace talks. She said all sides needed to move beyond short-term needs, and "for the Israelis that means showing the Palestinians that there are benefits to negotiating if their goal is control of their own destiny and to live in peace and dignity in an economically viable state."

At the news conference, held before Clinton flew to Jerusalem for talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, she refused to elaborate, saying she would wait until a new Israeli government is formed before publicly discussing specific policies.

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