For Obama, Focus Shifts From Engagement To Pursuit of Concerted, Tough Measures

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

The disclosure of a second uranium enrichment site in Iran has led the Obama administration to shift the emphasis in its dealings with the Islamic republic -- away from engagement and toward building an international consensus for sterner action against Tehran.

The effort to directly engage Iran was a hallmark of the early months of the administration, with President Obama offering a televised greeting in honor of the Persian New Year and sending private letters to the country's supreme leader. But the gestures went largely unreciprocated. Now, while not shutting the door on engagement entirely, the United States and its allies plan to forcefully press the case that Tehran has been caught, red-handed, in yet another violation of international rules.

Officials hope that the pressure -- to be applied at previously scheduled talks Thursday in Geneva -- will force Iran into a broader discussion about its program and then into a serious set of negotiations.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, sharing the stage with Obama at the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh, said Friday that time is running out for Iran to avoid answering questions.

"Everything must now be put on the table," he said bluntly. "Let us not allow the Iranian leaders to buy time while the centrifuges are turning. And if by December there is no significant change in policy on the part of the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken."

The talks in Switzerland will involve diplomats from Iran, as well as those from the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China. U.S. officials, in particular, appear determined to make clear that tougher action against Iran should not be seen solely as "made in America," but rather as the collective will of other countries involved in the effort to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

In his comments Friday, Obama took a strikingly less strident tone than either Sarkozy or British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suggesting a deliberate strategy to entice Russia and China -- skeptics of sanctions.

Obama said since the start of his administration, he has argued that "by keeping the path of diplomacy open, that would actually strengthen world unity and our collective efforts to then hold Iran accountable.

"I think you're starting to see the product of that strategy unfold during the course of this week," he told reporters.

Indeed, Russia's initial reaction to the new Iranian disclosure was unusually forceful.

"Iran's construction of a uranium enrichment plant violates decisions of the United Nations Security Council," according to an official statement from the Kremlin, which demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency "investigate this site immediately" and that Iran "cooperate with this investigation."

Iran has denied that the newly discovered site represents a violation of its international obligations, so the Kremlin's dismissal of that claim must have been particularly gratifying to Washington. During the Bush administration, Russia -- after much haggling -- agreed three times to support Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, but it insisted on watering them down and then would maintain the sanctions were not effective.

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