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Obama Seen Struggling to Balance Iran Threats, Diplomatic Outreach

A number of U.S. government insiders have framed a credible threat of armed intervention as the only available means of persuading Iran to seek a peaceful compromise in a long-running dispute over its nuclear activities, but certain White House personnel said war rhetoric has overshadowed possible tactics for resolving the standoff through negotiation and could even force an armed confrontation, the New York Times reported on Thursday (see GSN, March 29).

The United States, the four other permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany are expected within weeks to join Iran for their first multilateral meeting since early last year (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011). The United States, Israel and several European countries suspect Iran's nuclear program is geared toward development of a weapons capability; Tehran insists its nuclear program is strictly peaceful.

U.S. reluctance over employing armed force might prompt Iran to rule out offers aimed at achieving compromise, according to a number of acting and retired Obama administration insiders.

“For diplomacy to work there has to be a coercive side,” former administration adviser Dennis Ross said (see GSN, March 23). “If the Iranians think this is a bluff, you can’t be as effective. The message to the Iranians is: you’ve got an option.”

Military threats can make armed conflict appear inevitable, though, and they belie concerns shared by President Obama and senior armed forces officials over the possible dangerous repercussions of an armed campaign carried out either unilaterally by Israel or with eventual U.S. involvement, according to the Times.

The possibility of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu independently launching an attack on Iran within several months is of greater concern to President Obama than Vice President Joseph Biden, who developed a personal bond with the Israeli leader during his first period in the top Tel Aviv office from 1996 to 1999.

The White House and Defense Department apparently share reservations over a potential conflict with Iran, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has issued cautionary statements over armed intervention, the Times reported. Former Pentagon chief Robert Gates and one-time Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen also voiced concerns while in office.

“Both of those guys were counseling on the risks of military action, and quite publicly,” one high-level armed forces insider stated. “Their successors have reaffirmed that -- and that is where the building’s leadership is on this.”

Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have provided their warnings over conflict with Iran independently of any intentional White House effort, according to high-level nonmilitary and uniformed defense officials. The two officials' cautionary rhetoric is rooted in their determinations that the United States could become embroiled in an expanded combat resulting from Iran's possible retaliation to an Israeli strike, government sources stated.

“As is appropriate in addressing a matter of this importance, senior leaders from across the government -- led by the president -- have discussed the potential consequences of a military conflict with Iran,” Defense Department spokesman George Little said.

A negotiated resolution to the nuclear standoff is also a stated wish of Israeli government advocates for a harder U.S. line on Iran, the Times reported. “At the end of the day, Israel doesn’t want to strike Iran either,” a Western envoy stated (New York Times, March 29).

The Obama administration has indicated it could be open to a nuclear compromise not requiring Iran to fully suspend its uranium enrichment program, but France and Israel stand strongly against any such agreement, the London Guardian reported on Thursday. Personnel under President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been attempting to schedule the planned multilateral discussions with Iran in a manner most favorable to the leaders' electoral bids, according to the newspaper.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last September floated a possible avenue for such a deal when he offered to end production of 20 percent-enriched uranium in exchange for fuel for a medical isotope production reactor. The higher-enriched material enables the nation to potentially more quickly produce nuclear-weapon fuel, which must be refined to roughly 90 percent.

The Security Council has adopted multiple resolutions pressing Iran to halt all uranium enrichment, including production of low-enriched fuel for power reactors (Julian Borger, London Guardian, March 29).

Issue experts and envoys from Western nations believe the focus of the multilateral talks expected in April will be on persuading Tehran to halt refinement of uranium to 20 percent, Reuters reported on Friday.

"We have the impression that the White House is interested in a realistic strategy - focusing on halting 20 percent enrichment of uranium as a first-step confidence-building measure," according to Greg Thielmann of the Washington-based Arms Control Association (Fredrik Dahl, Reutes/Yahoo!News, March 30).

“The scale of the Iranian nuclear program is expanding ... in direct violation of U.N. resolutions,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Bloomberg on Thursday (Arkhipov/Kravchenko, Bloomberg, March 30).

Still, Iran has bolstered assistance to an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation of the nation's atomic intentions, and the six governments set to participate in the multilateral meeting should demonstrate "equal readiness" for substantive discussions, Ryabkov told Reuters on Thursday.

"What we are talking about here is just the beginning of a process," the diplomat said. "It goes without saying that in that kind of a process one cannot put a time limit."

"I believe that our Israeli colleagues .... overestimate the degree of danger that Iran may pose," Ryabkov added. "After all we have no smoking gun that underpins accusations."

"Russia is still of the firm belief that there is no credible evidence of (a) military component in the Iranian program," he said (Alexei Anishchuk, Reuters I, March 30).

The atomic dispute with Iran cannot “be allowed to escalate into conflict,” said leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa who held talks on Thursday in the Indian capital (Arkhipov/Kravchenko, Bloomberg).

British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Thursday called for Iranian leaders to "prove to the world that their nuclear program is for peaceful energy, not for nuclear weapons, and to give up any plans to acquire them."

Hague seemed to suggest Iranian cooperation might result in a decrease in punitive economic measures targeting the country, according to Reuters.

"It is in the Iranian government's power to end this isolation, and if they negotiate seriously on the concerns over its nuclear program we will respond," the official stated.

If Iranian officials "do not seize this opportunity, they should not doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East," he said (Adrian Croft, Reuters II, March 29).

Meanwhile, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton on Thursday suggested the Obama administration intentionally shot down a deal for Azerbaijan to permit Israeli use of several airstrips to potentially stage an airstrike on Iran, the Christian Science Monitor reported. A Wednesday report by Foreign Policy magazine quotes multiple U.S. officials as describing a belief in Washington that the nations had reached such a bargain.

"I think this leak today is part of the administration's campaign against an Israeli attack," Bolton told Fox News.
 
"Clearly, this is an administration-orchestrated leak," the former diplomat said. "It's just unprecedented to reveal this kind of information about one of your own allies” (Brad Knickerbocker, Christian Science Monitor, March 29).

Qatar would not host any foreign assets involved in a strike on Iranian targets, Iran's Press TV on Thursday quoted Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani as saying (Press TV, March 29).

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday said "Turkey has always clearly supported the nuclear positions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and will continue to firmly follow the same policy in the future," Agence France-Press reported.

The leader referred to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's assertion that "weapons of mass destruction [have] no place and cannot be used in accordance with Sharia rules" the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Erdogan said the statement offers no grounds for asserting "Iran was producing nuclear weapons."

"The Iranian president also confirms the same statement. Don't they have the right to implement a nuclear program for peaceful purposes?" the Turkish leader asked (Xinhua News Agency, March 30).

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