Iran General NewsWhite House criticizes envoy over Iran

White House criticizes envoy over Iran

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New York Times: White House officials expressed anger on Tuesday about an appearance in which the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, sat beside the Iranian foreign minister at a panel of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday. The New York Times

By HELENE COOPER
Published: January 30, 2008

WASHINGTON — White House officials expressed anger on Tuesday about an appearance in which the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, sat beside the Iranian foreign minister at a panel of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday.

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, and the Bush administration has limited its official high-level dealings with Iran to discussions about Iraq, primarily in Baghdad. Administration officials said that Mr. Khalilzad’s appearance beside Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in Davos at a panel on Iranian foreign policy surprised senior Bush administration officials, who became aware that Mr. Khalilzad had appeared with Mr. Mottaki only when a video of the discussion appeared on YouTube on Tuesday.

Mr. Khalilzad was still in Europe and could not be reached for comment. His spokesman, Richard A. Grenell, characterized Mr. Khalilzad’s appearance beside Mr. Mottaki as “just a multilateral conversation with the moderator.”

“There was no separate meeting or separate conversation or handshake with the Iranian foreign minister,” Mr. Grenell said. But administration officials said that White House officials, in particular, were angry about the episode. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal administration affairs.

The in-fighting reflects continuing disagreements within the Bush administration about how to deal with Iran, and just where to draw the line on engaging its nemesis, particularly when the administration’s Iran policy appears to be in disarray. Many State Department officials say privately that they think the administration should directly engage Iran, and without preconditions, a view that is not shared by the White House.

In his State of the Union address on Monday night, President Bush repeated his customary tough rhetoric against Iran. “Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin,” he said. “Come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions.”

But European diplomats and even a handful of people in the administration say a lack of progress in American-led efforts to intensify sanctions against Iran suggests that Mr. Bush is unlikely to achieve his goal of getting Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions before he leaves office.

Mr. Bush’s top envoy to the sanctions talks, R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, announced last week that he was resigning. Mr. Burns has maintained that his departure has nothing to do with dwindling hope that the administration will get much traction in its diplomatic efforts to press Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quickly moved to replace Mr. Burns with an equally respected career foreign service official, William J. Burns, the United States ambassador to Russia. (The two men are not related.)

But “it’s hard to see Nick Burns jumping ship if they thought they were going to get somewhere on the diplomatic track,” one European diplomat said.

Last week, American and European diplomats circulated draft copies of a third United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution against Tehran, which is meant to increase pressure on Iran’s leadership by making it harder for anyone involved in Iran’s nuclear program to do business around the world.

The new sanctions resolution would, for the first time, authorize inspections of air and sea cargo going in and out of Iran. Also, it would ban all trade and supply of dual-use items, materials and technologies that can have both civilian and military uses.

Publicly, administration officials say the resolution shows that a group that includes Britain, Russia, China, Germany, France and the United States remains united in maintaining pressure on Iran.

But the resolution is far weaker than what the United States, Britain and France were seeking, and officials say their efforts to win support from Russia and China have been undercut by the release in Washington in December of a National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had abandoned its nuclear arms program.

In negotiations over the resolution, diplomats said, Russia and China insisted that it merely call on countries to “exercise vigilance” over the activities of financial institutions connected to some Iranian banks, instead of an outright ban on transactions with those banks.

The intelligence estimate “does hurt in that it furthers the view in most of the world that it’s a question of cleaning up Iran’s past record, and that after that, everything’s done,” said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I don’t see what the administration can do to change that scenario. This resolution will be the something that’s just a little more than nothing.”

Indeed, Bush administration officials have recently been on the defensive in trying to demonstrate why the rest of the world should continue to increase the pressure on Iran.

At the forum in Davos on Saturday, Mr. Khalilzad, seated next to Mr. Mottaki, defended the American stance that pressure should be maintained against Iran until Tehran agrees to suspend its uranium enrichment.

“It hasn’t been a brilliantly successful strategy so far,” said Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group, the panel’s moderator, expressing support for an idea increasingly winning favor in Europe, one that would allow Iran to enrich uranium but only with stronger international monitoring and safeguards.

Mr. Khalilzad stuck to the administration playbook. “Imagine if you acquiesce to that, why would others not seek similar capabilities?” he said. “You’d have a world where a number of countries are within so many hours, so many weeks, of nuclear capability.”

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