ANALYSIS

Clinton's sharp words for Iran counter offers of outreach

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; 10:45 PM

JIDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA -- Obama administration officials still ritually say they are interested in engaging with Iran. But as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton completed her tour of the Persian Gulf region on Tuesday, it seemed clear that the bow to doing so is a mere formality and that criticism of Iran is the standard practice.

A day after Clinton repeatedly warned that Iran is turning into a "military dictatorship," officials in Tehran lashed out at the United States, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki denouncing her comments as "a new trick" and "fake words" intended "to divert public opinion in the region." President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted that the U.S. military budget is 80 times larger than Iran's.

Clinton, unyielding, told students here at Dar al-Hekma women's college that "questions keep building" about Iran and its nuclear ambitions. "Iran has threatened other countries, including the kingdom," she said. "Iran has funded terrorists that have launched attacks within other countries, including the kingdom. Iran is the largest supporter of terrorism in the world today. . . . You have to ask yourself: Why are they doing this?"

Clinton has long taken a hard line on Iran. During the 2008 presidential campaign, she was far more hawkish than fellow candidate Barack Obama, and sounded a note of skepticism every time Obama proposed reaching out to the Islamic Republic. On her maiden trip to the Middle East as secretary, in March, she expressed doubts in a private meeting with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates that Obama's outreach to Iran would gain much traction with Tehran.

Last summer, in Thailand, Clinton resurrected an idea from her campaign to create a "security umbrella" for Persian Gulf nations, which was interpreted as an effort to extend the nuclear guarantee now granted to Europe, Japan and South Korea. During her most recent swing through the region, she spoke again about providing a robust defense for nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar against possible Iranian aggression.

All the while, the White House has maintained that it is open to engaging with Iran, even as leaders in the Arab world -- as well as those in Israel -- expressed skepticism.

White House officials say the administration's outreach has paid important diplomatic dividends. With Iran seeking fuel for a nuclear reactor for medical purposes -- and intent on enriching uranium to obtain it -- the United States joined with Russia and France to craft a plan to replace the bulk of the uranium. Iran first agreed to a deal, then balked.

Its objections, meanwhile, have helped Russian officials shift toward tougher sanctions. On Tuesday, Russia joined France and the United States in publicly criticizing Iran for creating higher-grade enriched uranium. China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, is still unconvinced that tougher sanctions are needed, but officials in Washington argue that the efforts to engage have helped show that the United States is serious about a diplomatic, not a military, approach.

It may be forever unclear whether the Iranian government would have been more amenable to Obama's entreaties had it not been struggling to contain the opposition movement that emerged after last June's disputed elections. The president's outstretched hand appeared to prompt real debate and dissension within the ruling elite. Iran was confronted with a choice -- whether to engage -- rather than facing a United States that had no interest in talking.

In her discussion with students Tuesday, Clinton made the case that there is something nefarious about Iran's refusal to meet with major powers to discuss its nuclear program. Even at the height of the Cold War, she noted, the United States and the Soviet Union held serious negotiations on nuclear weapons.

Clinton's sharp rhetoric on Iran carries risks.

Iranian leaders, who would be relieved by the shelving of engagement, could use her remarks to once again paint the United States as an enemy of the republic.

Critics could question Clinton's credibility -- asking, as one student did Tuesday, why the United States opposes nuclear weapons in Iran but does nothing about Israel's nuclear stockpile.

And Arab commentators could note the irony of Clinton warning of a rising military dictatorship in Iran on a day when she hopscotched from one autocratic regime, Qatar, to another, Saudi Arabia.

Already, many commentators have been quick to seize on that point.

"If Iran is indeed becoming a military dictatorship, this probably qualifies it for American aid and hugs, rather than sanctions and threats," wrote Rami Khouri, editor at large of Beirut's Daily Star. "The United States has adored military dictatorships in the Arab world, especially states dominated by the shadowy world of intelligence services."

Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran contributed to this report.


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