Clinton Expresses Doubts on Iran

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed doubt Monday that Iran would embrace the Obama administration’s offer of better relations, according to a senior U.S. official.

“It’s doubtful that Iran would respond,” Clinton said during a private meeting with the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, according to the U.S. official who was present at the meeting.

Clinton’s assessment offers a glimpse into the administration’s thinking at a time when, at least publicly, officials in both Washington and Tehran have been voicing optimism about the prospect of warmer ties.

If Clinton’s prediction proves correct, one of the central foreign policy pledges of the Obama campaign — to reach out to Tehran in hopes of restoring relations severed in 1979 — may quickly evolve into a familiar, contentious process.

It also could mean the U.S. must resort to new sanctions and other forms of international pressure, not direct talks, to force a halt in the Iranian nuclear program.

“Our eyes are wide open on Iran,” the official added. “We’re under no illusions.”

In a press conference Monday in Sharm el Sheikh, the Egyptian resort town where she was attending an aid conference on the crisis in Gaza, Clinton declined to discuss her comments about Iran to the UAE’s Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.

She repeated the Obama administration’s public stance that it was willing “to extend a hand [to Iran], if the other side unclenches its fist, in order to have some process of engagement.”

Earlier this month, responding to Obama’s offer of engagement, Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech that “the Iranian nation is ready for talks, but in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect.”

Yet Tehran has not made any public concessions or announcements about its nuclear program, or on other issues that would make it easier for Obama to proceed with his pledge to hold direct talks.

The apparent rebuff by Tehran could make it easier for Obama to develop consensus on additional measures against Iran among European allies and Russia, which long resisted Bush administration’s calls for tougher sanctions.

“The worst nightmare for the Iranians is for the international community to be united,’ the senior official said.

Clinton’s aides played down her private comments, noting that she may have simply been trying to reassure bin Zayed al Nahyan that the U.S. is not planning on reaching an accommodation with Iran that allows Iran to maintain its nuclear program. In their meeting, bin Zayad al Nahyan told her “there’s an impression that the West wants to work out an arrangement [with Iran] without proper consultation,” the official said.

In Egypt, Clinton was making her first foray into Middle East diplomacy as part of a weeklong trip to the region and to Europe. At her press conference she called for urgent action on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, a message that the her aides said was intended to contrast her approach with that of the Bush administration, which rarely put much effort into the issue.

Before leaving the Red Sea resort and flying to Israel, Clinton also shook hands with and had a brief discussion with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, signaling a possible warming in U.S. relations with Syria after years of strain under Bush.

She later flew here to Israel, where she is scheduled to meet with senior officials Tuesday and to travel to the West Bank to see Palestinian officials Wednesday.

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