Exclusive: Clinton on Iran: The regime is on the ropes

Exclusive: Clinton on Iran: The regime is on the ropes

MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Bahrain today, getting ready to deliver the opening address at the IISS Manama Security Dialogue. But before she speaks, she’ll attend a dinner along with her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

The two leaders cross paths just three days before Iran will meet with the Security Council’s big powers in Geneva for the first multilateral discussions on Iran’s nuclear program in more than a year. Dozens of governments from around the world are gathered here in Manama, all of them waiting to hear what Clinton and Mottaki will say.

Earlier today, Clinton sat down exclusively with The Cable to lay out her expectations for the Iran meeting and explain what will follow. She said that the Iranian regime is suffering under sanctions and is experiencing new problems with its nuclear program, which is why Tehran has come back to the table now. But the United States is not offering Iranian leaders an extended engagement, as in 2009. This time, they had better be serious about negotiating right away, she suggested.

"We have to see what attitude they bring," Clinton said about the Iranians. "I don’t think we can put timetables on it. This is more of a day-by-day assessment. We know where we’re headed, and that is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. We know we have the vast majority of the world with us on that. But I think we’re going to have to take stock of where we are after Geneva… The pressure’s not lifting because they’re coming to the table in Geneva. And then we’ll take it step by step."

She said that recent setbacks in the Iranian nuclear program have put the Iranians in a weaker position. "If they’re having difficulties, maybe they’ll be more responsive, but we won’t know until we test it," Clinton said.

If Clinton does get a chance to speak with Mottaki tonight, she wants to convey to him that the administration is serious about this round of engagement and hopes there will be progress, but at the same time, the Obama team believes that Iran is probably coming to Geneva only because sanctions are taking their toll.

"I don’t think they ever believed that we could put together the international coalition we did for sanctions," Clinton said. "And from all that we hear from people in this region and beyond, they’re worried about the impact. And so they’re returning to Geneva and we hope they are returning to negotiate."

But will Clinton actually talk to Mottaki before she leaves for Washington late tonight?

"If he comes to the dinner, I’ll probably see him. But he doesn’t talk to me," Clinton said.

In a separate interview with the BBC’s Kim Ghattas, Clinton said that Iran could be permitted to maintain its own domestic uranium enrichment program, for civilian purposes, if and when it proves to the international community that it can be trusted to do so.

"We’ve told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, but they haven’t yet restored the confidence of the international community to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich," Clinton told the BBC. "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."

Clinton told The Cable that progress with Iran was linked to the Iranian government’s actions on other items on the U.S. agenda.

"We’ll have to see how the Iranians respond on other things we’ve engaged them on, such as the two hikers who are still there in prison and [former FBI agent Robert] Levinson, who is also in Iran in our opinion. So let’s see where it goes."

Internal divisions in Iran’s government, however, may be complicating its ability to strike a deal, she suggested.

"You’re dealing with a regime that has been badly shaken by the events of June 2009, the election, and the decision-making apparatus was knocked off kilter, which meant that trying to get any action step out of them was more difficult than it would have been prior to June 2009. So none of this is a static situation," she said.