The Cable

Cat and mouse: Iranian foreign minister shakes hands with senior U.S. official... but dodges Hillary Clinton

MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki twice on Friday, pursuing him both inside and outside the gala dinner here at the Ritz Carlton in Manama. But Mottaki deliberately avoided contact with her both times.

"If he comes to the dinner, I'll probably see him. But he doesn't talk to me," Clinton told The Cable in our exclusive interview just hours before the event.

Turns out she was right. Everybody at the opening dinner for the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, where Clinton gave the speech, was watching to see if she and Mottaki would trade words. After all, they were seated only five seats apart. Clinton went out on a limb twice to try to make it happen, but the end result was only an unintelligible mutter from the Iranian leader in the general direction of the secretary.

Clinton's first attempt came just as the dinner ended. All the leaders sitting at the head table were shaking each other's hands. Mottaki was shaking hands with Jordan's King Abdullah II when Clinton called out to him.

"As I was leaving and they were telling me, ‘Hurry up, you have to get to the plane,' I got up to leave and he was sitting several seats down from me and he was shaking people's hands, and he saw me and he stopped and began to turn away," Clinton told reporters on the plane ride home.

"And I said, ‘Hello, minister!' And he just turned away," said Clinton, adding that Mottaki seemed to mutter something in Farsi but was clearly trying to avoid her.

In his Saturday morning press conference, Mottaki had a different take on the interaction.

"Some people said that last night at the dinner Hillary Clinton said hello to me as I was greeting the king of Jordan," he said. "According to the Islamic tradition, there is a necessity to respond... The people of this region are very famous for being polite."

But that wasn't Clinton's only try. We're told by a senior member of the U.S. delegation that as Clinton's huge team moved to the door, Mottaki kept his delegation back to avoid having the two delegations converge at the door at the same time.

The next attempt by Clinton came outside the conference space, in the driveway while both leaders were waiting for their motorcades to pull up. Again, Clinton called out to Mottaki with a greeting and again, Mottaki refused to respond.

There's a lot of buzz about this game of cat and mouse between Clinton and Mottaki here at the conference. Most observers said that Mottaki simply was not interested in making any news about a warm interaction with Clinton ahead of the negotiations. It simply would not play well for him domestically.

Several attendees speculated that Mottaki is resisting interacting with Clinton at least in part because she is a woman. Mottaki's behavior at the press conference confirmed that he is distinctly less interested in dealing with women face to face.

But if Mottaki thinks he has gotten away with successfully avoiding any direct contact with the U.S. delegation, he is dead wrong. And the funny thing is, he probably doesn't even know it.

After Clinton left town, the delegation heads sat down for lunch Saturday at a local Japanese restaurant. Two witnesses confirmed that as part of the opening greetings, Mottaki shook hands with Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow. Both witnesses said they were sure Mottaki had no idea at the time that he had just shaken hands with a U.S. government official.


The Cable

Iran’s top diplomat strikes defiant tone ahead of Geneva talks

MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have tried to tamp down the rhetoric against Iran in her speech Friday night here in Bahrain, but Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's speech Saturday morning was the same critical and defiant line his government has been taking for months.

Here at the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, the Clinton and Mottaki speeches were the most closely watched. Clinton's speech was well received; the Arab Gulf country representatives we spoke with all said they thought she projected an open and welcoming message. They noted that she made statements on Iran's right to nuclear energy while avoiding the usual U.S. criticisms of the regime many expected.

Mottaki's speech, however, was devoid of the kind of signals that might reassure Gulf or American diplomats that Iran was moving toward concessions or a warming of ties. The speech came only two days before Iran returns to the table to discuss its nuclear program with the P5+1 countries in Geneva.

Mottaki repeatedly disputed the idea that Arab countries were concerned and opposed to Iran's nuclear program, as was communicated to American diplomats and revealed in the disclosures of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.

"Muslims must be happy to see other Muslims becoming powerful," he said, rejecting the idea that Arab countries are suspicious of Iran. "Our power is your power," he told the Arab leaders assembled. "We must not allow the Western media to tell us what to think of each other."

He called the government of Israel a "counterfeit regime" and dismissed its establishment as an "excuse to provide a home for the victims of the second WorldWar."

Regarding the nuclear talks themselves, Mottaki questioned whether it would really be a dialogue or just a lecture from the United States. He declared that the U.S.-led international sanctions on Iran are having no effect, directly contradicting Clinton.

"If the other side believes they need more time to see the results of the sanctions, they can have more time. The sanctions have nothing to do with us and don't have an effect on our resolve," he said.

Mottaki pointed back to Iran's agreement with Turkey and Brazil for a fuel-swap arrangement but chastised Obama for rejecting that deal. He also said he saw no signs the Obama administration had done anything different in the Gulf region.

"We believe that the policies of President Obama are the same as President Bush's policies," he said. "We have two years of performance of President Obama in our region. Are we really seeing any kind of changes in the approaches of the Americans?"

In what some saw as a new concession by Iran, Mottaki explicitly endorsed the idea of an international fuel bank to manage and disperse nuclear fuel for civilian uses. But he had one heck of a caveat.

"We're in agreement with the creating of a fuel bank and we support that," he said. "And since we are a fuel producer and we have the technology for that, then in principle a branch of that bank will be established in the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Joshua Rogin / Foreign Policy