Obama offers dialogue to Iran, tells Iranians their rulers have isolated themselves

U.S. Jews encourage Clinton to push for sanctions

Russia to operate Bushehr nuke plant, says operation does not justify continued enrichment

Russia blames Iran, may back sanctions

President Barack Obama's attempts to reach out to Iran are hitting a closed door in Tehran, but they could be helping him in building an international consensus for more sanctions and pressure on Iran's ruling clerics.

Obama's latest approach to Iran over the weekend went very much according to expectations: Washington offered another chance for dialogue and it was quickly batted away by Iran's supreme leader.

"I don't think Obama is under any impression that (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei is going to rush to the table," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born regional analyst based in Israel. "He is doing it for his own position."

The goal, experts say, is to reinforce the view that Iran's leadership is unwilling to make bold moves with the West. At the same time, Washington needs to win over China and Russia — both U.N. Security Council members and Iranian allies that have balked at supporting harsher sanctions.

On Friday — just as Obama released his video message to mark the Iranian New Year — there was a flash of Russian impatience on Iran's foot dragging.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Iran was allowing an opportunity for mutually beneficial dialogue with the West to "slip away."

He was joined in Moscow by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who added that Washington was "pulling together the world" on placing more sanctions on Iran.

Obama, who came to office promising a policy of dialogue with Iran, has shifted his tone in his outreach over the past year. His New Year's message was targeted more to the Iranian people, offering greater cultural exchanges, than to Tehran's leadership, which he criticized for isolating Iran.

On Monday, Clinton was even sharper, parts of Iran's government have become "a menace" to the Iranian people and the region. She told a pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that Washington will never allow a nuclear-armed Iran and that Obama seeks new sanctions "that will bite."

The attempt to go over the heads of the Iranian leadership to appeal to the public evolved as the Tehran government has pushed ahead with its crackdown on political dissent following disputed presidential elections last June.

At the same time, Iran rebuffed U.N.-backed proposals to exchange its low-enriched uranium for reactor-ready nuclear fuel created abroad. The goal of the offer was to reduce Iran's stockpile of material that could eventually be turned into weapons-grade material.

The U.S. and its allies worry that Iran is using its nuclear program to also develop atomic weapons. Iran says it only seeks energy-producing reactors.

Leaving the door open for U.S.-Iran talks lets the Obama administration show countries reluctant on sanctions that it is at least trying talk — while hawks in Israel and elsewhere openly discuss military strategies against Iran's nuclear program.

"Frankly, it's a result of a poverty of options more than anything else," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of Middle Eastern politics and trends at Syracuse University.

"You take away the option for talks and there is very little left that's not just pure confrontation."

But it requires a deft touch by Washington.

Obama is technically offering dialogue to the leadership accused of stealing the presidential election and widely disgraced in international eyes for the relentless arrests that followed. Yet Obama is also trying to show Iranian opposition groups that he has not abandoned them.

"Obama's outreach is infuriating the Iranian leadership," said Javedanfar. "They are at a loss. The last thing they want is to have the world's most powerful politician to reach out to the people of Iran and undo years of Iranian efforts to portray the U.S. as the `Great Satan.'"

A former State Department No. 3 official, Nicholas Burns, described Obama's strategy with Iran's nuclear program as a "marathon, not a sprint."

The offer for talks, he said, can work in tandem with the harder lines: pushing for sanctions and bolstering U.S. military cooperation with its Arab allies, which fear Iran's growing ambitions and influence in the Gulf and beyond under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"We need to keep the door open to possible negotiations," said Burns, a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "That strengthens Obama's international credibility and it keeps Ahmadinejad off balance."

The U.N. Security Council could consider new punishments on Iran, including increasing financial squeezes on the extensive holdings of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. U.S. lawmakers also could seek to penalizing companies that sell fuel to the oil-rich Islamic republic, which imports about 40 percent of its fuel needs because its refineries cannot keep pace.

Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei did not outright reject the offer in Obama's new year's message. But it was hard to find any conciliatory tones. The crowd listening to Khamenei several times broke into chants of "death to America" and "death to Obama."

"You cannot speak about peace and friendship while plotting to hit Iran," Khamenei said.

He lashed at Obama for what Iran calls support of opposition protesters.

"You talk of human rights and democracy ... then you take the side of a bunch of rioters and call this a civil rights movement," Khamenei said in reference to Obama. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"

Obama, however, has little choice but to keep open the prospect for dialogue, said Ehsan Ahrari, an analyst on Middle Eastern affairs based in Honolulu.

"Iran is not about to give up its nuclear research program," he said. "Keeping open the option of dialogue seems still viable."

Meanwhile, The United States is marshaling international support for "sanctions that will bite" in an effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a pro-Israel group Monday.

After a week of tension between the United States and Israel over what both sides agree was an ill-timed announcement of new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, Clinton asserted what she called President Obama's "rock solid" commitment to Israel's security.

However, the United States opposes construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank, she told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), because "it undermines mutual trust and endangers" potential peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

"This was not about wounded pride," she said about the Obama administration's decision to "condemn" the announcement March 9 about a new Jerusalem settlement during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel. "Nor is it a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table. This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it — and staying there until the job is done."

Few applauded. The AIPAC official who introduced Clinton, Executive Director Howard Kohr, got a standing ovation when he declared, "Jerusalem is not a settlement. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel."

Clinton drew sustained applause for her comments on Iran, which she called the greatest strategic threat to Israel.

"Elements in Iran's government have become a menace, both to their own people and in the region," Clinton said. A nuclear-armed Iran, she said, "would embolden its terrorist clientele and would spark an arms race that could destabilize the region. … So let me be very clear: The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

President Obama, she said, has tried to engage Iran for the past year with little response.

The United States and Europe are united in efforts to persuade Iran's leaders to change course, and Russia and China are becoming more cooperative.

She did not mention that Russia defied U.S. objections last week and pledged to continue helping Iran build a nuclear reactor. China has shown no sign of supporting tougher sanctions against Iran.

On Israel, Clinton told the audience that the current situation can't continue.

Given population trends, Palestinians will soon outnumber Jews in areas controlled by Israel, which "may have to choose between preserving their democracy and staying true to the dream of a Jewish homeland. Given this reality, a two-state solution is the only viable path for Israel to remain both a democracy and a Jewish state."

Clinton praised Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu "for embracing the vision of the two-state solution and for acting to lift roadblocks and ease movement throughout the West Bank."

But she said she expects Israel to stop building settlements and address "a humanitarian crisis" in Gaza, the Hamas-controlled strip subject to a partial Israeli blockade.

"This is the 'dial it down, so we can ratchet it up later' speech," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East Peace negotiator at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Going after settlements piecemeal is a war (the Obama administration) can't win. They didn't get much, and they've got Netanyahu on edge and suspicious."

Iran's launch of a Russian-built nuclear power plant will go ahead and is in no way linked to possible new sanctions over its alleged weapons program, Russia's foreign ministry said Thursday.

"It would be wrong to make any links between the construction and the launch of the plant and the growing need to take new measures towards Tehran," ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said, quoted by Russian news agencies.

In Moscow last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that going forward with the inauguration of the nuclear plant that Russia has helped build at Bushehr would send Tehran the wrong message.

But Nesterenko denied that the United States had voiced any concern over Bushehr in bilateral talks.

"I would like to put a stop to this once and for all," he said in response to a reporter's question.

"Everything is being done under IAEA regulations," he said, referring to the UN's nuclear watchdog agency.

"Spent fuel deliveries to Iran will be returned to Russia with the IAEA's seal according to the standards of all the existing technology in this field."

His comments came after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced last Thursday -- on the eve of his meeting with Clinton -- that the Bushehr plant would come online this summer.

Russia, which had enjoyed close ties with Tehran for many years, has shown growing irritation with Iran and has repeatedly said it may back new UN sanctions over the nuclear weapons issue.

The United States and its allies accuse Tehran of plans to build an atomic bomb, while the Islamic republic insists its nuclear drive is purely for peaceful, civilian purposes.

Statements by officials this week did more to detail Russia's stance after President Dmitry Medvedev called for "smart" sanctions against Iran in comments early this month in Paris.

A senior Russian diplomat on Wednesday stressed Moscow was against "paralyzing sanctions", saying at an anonymous briefing that it will only back measures targeting non-proliferation.

Nesterenko meanwhile said measures against Iran must not aim at "the financial and economic suffocation" of the country.

Russia has been helping Iran build the power station in the southern city of Bushehr since the mid-1990s but its launch has been marred by a series of delays, not least the standoff over Iran's nuclear activities.

Clinton, who visited Moscow last week hoping to secure Russia's support for a tougher line on Iran, said Tehran was entitled to civil nuclear power but called the start-up of Bushehr premature.