By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 9:32 PM
MANAMA, BAHRAIN - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday directly addressed senior Iranian officials, including the foreign minister, to reaffirm President Obama's offer of engagement and to pledge "good faith" negotiations on Iran's nuclear program in Geneva next week.
Clinton made her statement before a glittering gathering of hundreds of Arab kings, diplomats and defense officials as part of a speech here on Persian Gulf security that, often without mentioning Iran directly, touched on the concerns voiced by many in the region over Tehran's growing clout. It appeared designed to set the stage for talks next week - the first in 14 months - by putting Iran on the spot with a show of reasonableness and outreach.
In the speech to the Manama Dialogue, an annual conference organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Clinton lauded Iran as the "home of one of humankind's great civilizations," capable of enriching "the political, social and economic life of this region." She pressed the Iranians "to restore the confidence of the international community and live up to your international obligations," but warned that the country risked isolation if it failed to address those concerns.
"We urge you to make that choice - for your people, your interests, and our shared security," Clinton said.
Iranian officials had no immediate reaction, but they have repeatedly insisted that nuclear issues will not be on the table during the planned two days of talks beginning Monday in Geneva. Clinton encountered Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki later as she was leaving for the airport. She told reporters that he started to turn away and that she called out, "Hello, Minister" but did not catch his response.
In an interview Friday with the BBC, Clinton said of the Iranians, "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations." The Bush administration and its international partners had first suggested in 2008 that Iran could one day have the right to enrich uranium, and Clinton's reaffirmation of that offer appeared to be another olive branch intended to improve the prospects for talks.
In response to a question from the audience, Clinton said U.S. officials "very much hope the negotiations will lead to a breakthrough" but that it was "largely in the hands of the Iranians."
The mostly Arab audience was probably receptive to Clinton's message. For all the diplomatic fallout from the WikiLeaks disclosure of State Department cables, there may be a silver lining in terms of policy toward Iran: Arab angst about their neighbor's nuclear ambitions has been exposed, perhaps giving the United States greater leverage in next week's talks.
Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, said Friday that there was "no contradiction" between his country's public position on Iran and the private concerns expressed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
According to the State Department documents, the king indicated to Gen. David H. Petraeus in 2009 that Iran's nuclear program should be stopped, saying that "the danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it."
At a joint news conference Friday with Clinton, Bahrain's foreign minister said that "every country in the Middle East has the right to nuclear power for peaceful use," but that an effort to develop that power into weapons-grade nuclear material "is something we can never accept, and we can never live with it in this region."
Both at the news conference and at a town hall meeting, Clinton suggested that the private Arab sentiments expressed in the cables underscored the unity of international opposition to Iran's nuclear program.
Asked by a student at the town hall meeting about the WikiLeaks memos, Clinton said, "It is not surprising to anyone - it is what we call old news - that many countries, many people in the region and beyond, are worrying about the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons."
Mentioning many of the countries whose private sentiments about Iran were revealed, Clinton added, "I know that it is a concern here in Bahrain. I know it is a concern in Saudi Arabia, in the UAE [United Arab Emirates], in Egypt, in Jordan and Israel."