This morning, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted a secure video conference with 20 State Department officials worldwide, at about a half dozen locations.
Much of the substance of the 45-minute video conference is classified, but broad strokes were provided to Foreign Policy. Though the locations of the State Department officials participating in the call from abroad weren't disclosed, the United States has in recent years opened Iran "watching" stations at U.S. embassies in Dubai, Azerbaijan, Berlin, Turkey, and London, among key foreign locations with large Iranian expatriate populations and traffic.
Participating in the call from Washington, beyond Clinton as host, was acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. (The State Department's point person on the international talks regarding Iran's nuclear program, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, was traveling and did not participate.) Also thought to participate from Washington was Jillian Burns, the former head of the Iran-watching post at the U.S. Embassy in Dubai, who is now an Iran advisor in the State Department Office of Policy Planning, and Todd Schwartz, the director of the State Department's Iran office, and other members of that office.
(Clinton's former special advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia, Dennis Ross, who moved last month to the National Security Council to assume a job as the senior director for the central region, is taking four of his State Department staff with him to the NSC: Iran expert Ray Takeyh, assistant Ben Fishman, diplomat David Bame, and translator turned longtime Ross counselor Gamal Helal, officials said, while four former Ross aides will be absorbed elsewhere in the Department.)
Though Clinton has communicated with all of them before, getting everyone at State involved in the Iran effort together is something Clinton has wanted to do for a long time, an official said.
First, she thanked them for being the eyes and ears of the U.S. government on Iran, especially in the extraordinary weeks and months since the election.
The folks abroad gave her their take on the current situation. The consensus was that the administration's calibrated remarks on the election and its aftermath have been just the right tone, and right balance.
One participant called the election a "tectonic" shift in Iran. The consensus was also that the election and its aftermath have basically led Iran to focus on its internal politics rather than any of its bilateral or multilateral relationships, including with the United States.
Asked about Iran policy at a press appearance with the Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh Monday, Clinton said, "We've made it very clear that we wish to engage with the Iranians in accordance with President Obama's policy to discuss a broad range of issues. That would be a bilateral channel, which we have communicated to the Iranians. And we continue to engage in multilateral channels ... " including an invitation to participate conveyed by the European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana that Clinton said Iran has not yet responded to.
"I held a videoconference this morning with a number of our diplomats around the world who have expertise with respect to Iran," Clinton added. "And we discussed what they saw happening, what they thought would be the responses coming from the Iranian Government, what was going on inside Iran. So we're not prepared to talk about any specific steps, but I have said repeatedly that in the absence of some positive response from the Iranian Government, the international community will consult about next steps, and certainly next steps can include certain sanctions."
The remarks add to numerous recent signs that the Obama administration thinks prospects for Iran responding to its engagement offer in the near term have dimmed if not been entirely extinguished. Several U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Israel last week, have recently telegraphed the administration's envisaged timeline, which would give Iran roughly until the United Nations General Assembly in mid-September to respond positively to the offer to engage in multilateral or bilateral talks on its nuclear program, or be subjected to an effort to impose more severe sanctions, including a possible ban on Iran's import of refined petroleum products.
However, U.S. officials have indicated that they do not think Russia is likely to support tougher sanctions until after December (when the U.S. and Russia are supposed to sign a new strategic arms reductions treaty). Some outside administration Iran hands have indicated they are skeptical Russia will be helpful even then, and also that China, concerned about energy costs, can be persuaded to support a tougher sanctions route that targets Iran's energy sector. Legislation being debated in Congress proposes U.S. sanctions on international energy companies that would violate such a ban from selling petroleum to the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve. But some Iran experts are concerned that unilateral American sanctions could end up splitting up the international coalition, rather than bolstering the multilateral pressure on Iran. Nonetheless, the administration has recently reportedly expressed support for the more aggressive sanctions legislation, perhaps as a way to turn up the heat and try to prompt Iran to respond to the engagement offer, as well as to avert Israel from acting unilaterally against Iran.
It's not clear the administration's hopes for engagement have totally faded. In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, columnist Roger Cohen noted in a detailed article about U.S. Iran policy that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had allegedly responded in writing to a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama, the existence of which was first reported by the Washington Times. Cohen described the alleged response to Obama as being viewed as somewhat disappointing.
Foreign Policy has previously been told that Obama had received a letter from the Supreme Leader's office, and that it came into the United States government through unspecified but proper channels in May or early June before Iran's June 12 elections. The letter's translation from Farsi to English was said to have been arranged by the State Department. It was described as being not a definitive "yes" or "no" to the engagement offer. It was so closely held that no Iran hands contacted at the department acknowledged being aware of it. The Swiss embassy declined to comment about whether the Swiss foreign ministry had been the channel for any such letter.
Several White House officials, contacted by Foreign Policy last month about the alleged letter from Khamenei to Obama, said, "We do not comment on private correspondence," rather than confirming or denying its existence.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.