The Cable

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.

The Cable

The 2010 Manama Security Dialogue: full coverage on The Cable

DOHA, Qatar—Senior political and military leaders from around the world are flocking to Manama, Bahrain, Friday for what will be this year's largest and most star-studded meeting on regional security policy, the 2010 Manama Security Dialogue, hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Institute for International and Strategic Studies.

The U.S. delegation, one of the largest at the conference, is being led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is giving the opening address Friday evening. Other U.S. government delegates include Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary for Defense International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Central Command head Gen. James Mattis, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner, Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Daniel Feldman, and U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli.

Among the non-government delegates attending the conference is none other than your humble Cable guy, who is filing this story from a layover in Doha, Qatar, which just happens to be on the country that was just awarded the privilege of hosting the 2022 World Cup. We'll be reporting throughout the conference.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will give a speech Dec. 4, only two days before Iran will meet the "P5+1" countries -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- in Geneva for the first multilateral discussions about Iran's nuclear program in over a year.

"Last year, in response to a question, Mottaki presented what was known as the ‘Kish Island option' for the Tehran Research Reactor fuel swap," Andrew Parasiliti, executive director of IISS's U.S. office, told The Cable. "This idea didn't get far, but at the time, it signaled the fuel-swap was not dead in Tehran." Mottaki's proposal, which the Iranians had first made privately to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, was to transfer the first 400 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Kish, an Iranian resort island in the Persian Gulf, in exchange for 40-50 kilograms of fuel enriched to 20 percent.

"The presence of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Mottaki, as well as ministerial delegations from the Gulf and worldwide, could provide an unusual opportunity for the US, Iran, Iraq, and the GCC states to present new initiatives for a Gulf regional security agenda," Parasiliti wrote Wednesday in an op-ed in the National.

Dozens of Arab leaders will also have their first chance to talk face to face with American diplomats about the WikiLeaks diplomatic cable disclosures, which have so far included embarrassing anecdotes about several governments who will be in Manama, including representatives from Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Another focus of the event will be the future of Iraq. Iraq's Speaker of Parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi was among the latest additions to the list of speakers. The keynote address on Dec. 4 will be given by King Abdullah II of Jordan.

And never count out General Mattis when it comes to the ability to make news. At last year's dialogue, his predecessor Gen. David Petraeus stirred the pot when he stated that the United Arab Emirates' air force had the ability to take out Iran's air force in a head-to-head matchup.

"All of these issues will be discussed in ministerial plenary panels as well as in off-the-record sessions," Parasiliti said.