The Cable

Clinton to Iran: Time is running out

Hillary Clinton will give what one administration official familiar with the U.S. Secretary of State’s preparations described as a "muscular" foreign-policy address this afternoon before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. As The Cable reported last week, Clinton appears to be using the occasion to raise her profile amid Washington chatter that she ...

Hillary Clinton will give what one administration official familiar with the U.S. Secretary of State’s preparations described as a "muscular" foreign-policy address this afternoon before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

As The Cable reported last week, Clinton appears to be using the occasion to raise her profile amid Washington chatter that she has not yet seemed to fully dominate her turf as the nation’s top diplomat. Six months into the job, it’s a perception Clinton seems determined to challenge.

According to excerpts of her prepared remarks that were shared with Foreign Policy, Clinton plans to say that "the international agenda today is unforgiving," with the United States facing "two wars, conflict in the Middle East, ongoing threats of violent extremism and nuclear proliferation, global recession, climate change, hunger and disease, and a widening gap  between rich and poor."

"All of these challenges affect America’s security and prosperity," the excerpts say. "And all threaten global stability and progress."

But a key theme of Clinton’s speech appears to be defending the administration’s pursuit of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, despite widespread international outrage over the Iranian regime’s violent crackdown on demonstrators protesting against alleged vote-rigging in the June 14 presidential election. Conservatives in particular have said that Obama was slow to condemn the Iranian government’s conduct, a charge the White House and its defenders deny.

All the administration’s special envoys, including Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell and special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, are expected to attend the speech.

An administration official said Clinton consulted closely with the White House, including Deputy National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough, and President Barack Obama‘s speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, and has been talking to the president and National Security Advisor James L. Jones about the speech. The secretary is meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Jones and other NSC officials this morning before her 1 p.m. address. She’s also due to meet with Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden at 4:30 p.m. Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus left an Iran conference he was cohosting with the Brookings Institution this morning to go to the State Department, apparently to consult with Clinton on the speech as well.

(But for all the collaboration with the White House over her remarks, Obama is scheduled to give Rose Garden remarks on health care five minutes into Clinton’s big speech. Asked about the scheduling overlap, a White House official said it’s an entirely different set of issues and reporters, and Obama’s remarks are not expected to last for more than a few minutes.)

The address will lay out an ambitious and wide-ranging foreign-policy agenda, from reversing the spread of nuclear weapons, to isolating and defeating terrorism "while reaching out to Muslims around the world," to encouraging and facilitating a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, to pursuing a global economy recovery and expanding "free and fair" trade, to combating climate change and laying the foundation for a "prosperous clean energy future," according to the official familiar with Clinton’s preparations.

Notably, the secretary plans to "stand up for human rights everywhere." Clinton was criticized after her February trip to China, when she said that U.S. concerns about human rights "can’t interfere" with other pressing bilateral issues, such as "the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." Some activists have also accused the administration of downgrading the promotion of human rights and democracy.

"Smart power counsels that we lead with diplomacy, even in the case of nations with whom we disagree," Clinton is expected to say, in a clear reference to Iran. "We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage. Yet some suggest that this is a sign of weakness or naiveté — or acquiescence to these countries’ repression of their own people. That is wrong. The president and I believe that refusing to talk to countries rarely punishes them. And as long as engagement might advance our interests and our values, it is unwise to take it off the table."

Citing the case of Libya, which abandoned its unconventional weapons programs under U.S. pressure, Clinton plans to suggest that engagement can yield tangible benefits, even if Iran does not reciprocate U.S. overtures. "Negotiations can provide insight into regimes’ calculations and the possibility — even if it seems remote — that a regime will, eventually, alter its behavior in exchange for the benefits of acceptance into the international community." And she will issue what appears to be a pointed warning of the potential consequences for Tehran of rebuffing U.S. demands. "Exhausting the option for dialogue is also more likely to make our partners more willing to exert more pressure should persuasion fail."

In a direct message to "foes and would-be foes," Clinton plans to say: "You should know that our focus on diplomacy and development is not an alternative to our national security arsenal. You should never see America’s willingness to talk as a sign of weakness to be exploited. We will not hesitate to defend our friends and ourselves vigorously when necessary with the world’s strongest military."

Clinton’s prepared remarks underscore Obama’s recent suggestion that Iran has a limited amount of time to respond to U.S. offers to negotiate. Administration officials have suggested in numerous recent venues that they will pursue the attempted engagement track with Iran until the end of the year, but with diminished expectations that it will succeed. After December, they believe that they have increased likelihood of international support, in particular from Russia, for a more aggressive international sanctions regime.

"We know very well what we inherited with Iran," the secretary plans to say. "We know how far its nuclear program has advanced — and we know that refusing to deal with the Islamic Republic has not succeeded in altering the Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon, reducing Iranian support for terror, or improving Iran’s treatment of its citizens. Neither the president nor I have any illusions that direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success. But we also understand the importance of trying to engage Iran and offering its leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation."

"Direct talks provide the best vehicle for presenting and explaining that choice. That is why we offered Iran’s leaders an unmistakable opportunity: Iran does not have a right to nuclear military capacity, but it does have a right to civil nuclear power if it re-establishes the confidence of the international community that it will use its programs exclusively for peaceful purposes. Iran can become a constructive actor in the region if it stops threatening its neighbors and supporting terrorism. It can assume a responsible position in the international community if it fulfills its obligations on human rights. The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain indefinitely."

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