Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Clinton on Iran, Biden, others on Russia & Georgia

This was first published in August 1, 2009 Armenian Reporter

Clinton indicates shift in U.S. thinking on Iran nuclear program

With chances for a new government in Tehran quickly receding, American leaders have renewed warnings over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, news agencies report.

The Obama administration is unhappy with the lack of Iranian response to its offer of dialogue, with the president and secretary of state hinting that the offer might expire before the end of the year. U.S. officials also insist that they find a nuclear-armed Iran "unacceptable."

Secretary Hillary Clinton has in the past threatened fresh "crippling sanctions" as a form of pressure on Iran should it continue policies that bring it close to acquiring nuclear weapons.

But in an apparent verbal slipup, Mrs. Clinton referred last week to a "defense umbrella" that the United States might extend to its Middle East allies, The Associated Press reported. Although Mrs. Clinton denied it indicated U.S. acceptance that Iran will eventually become nuclear-armed, that is how the comment was taken by most observers.

During her presidential election campaign, Mrs. Clinton used the term to describe a policy that would call for a U.S. commitment to retaliate against Iran should it use nuclear weapons against Israel or other regional allies of the United States, and thus theoretically deter Iran.

The concept had been articulated by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, including its former senior staff member Ambassador Dennis Ross, who is now the Obama administration's point man on Iran.

The apparent shift in U.S. thinking has worried Israel, whose officials argue that deterrence cannot be effective against Iran. In recent weeks, Israeli leaders from the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have renewed claims Israel might launch a military strike against Iran in an attempt to postpone its progress toward nuclear weapons.

U.S. reaction to Israeli threats has been mixed.

Vice President Joe Biden said in early July that the United States could not tell Israel what it could do to safeguard its security; but President Barack Obama then denied that the comments were a "green light" for an Israeli attack on Iran.

Biden comments on Russian economy, Georgian politics

Then-Senator Joe Biden in Tbilisi with Pres. Saakashvili and his spouse, August 17, 2009. U.S. Embassy in Georgia

Russia will be forced to cooperate with the United States because Russia will grow economically and politically weaker, Vice President Joe Biden told the Wall Street Journal at the end of his trip to Georgia last week.

Mr. Biden made the comments when asked why he thought the U.S. policy of reaching out to Russia would succeed while the United States continues to oppose a Russian "sphere of influence" in the former Soviet space. Mr. Biden also predicted a Russian banking collapse in the next 15 years.

Speaking to NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to address Russia's irritation at Mr. Biden's comments.

"Every country faces challenges. We have our challenges, Russia has their challenges," she said, but "we view Russia as a great power."

The vice president also expressed doubts about future of democracy in Georgia.

"What worries me most is they don't understand how to establish democracy," Mr. Biden said.

President Mikheil Saakashvili "has the impulses of what was the Rose Revolution. It was: 'We're in the street, you get your a** out of office, or we're going to do something.'

"It was a cry for freedom, and it was a demonstration of a total rejection of the other government. It's a leap from there to say, 'Here's how democratic institutions work.'"

U.S. officials, Congress members debate relations with Russia

In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Europe on July 28, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander discussed the aftermath of President Barack Obama's visit to Moscow in early July.

The two officials agreed that concerns over Iran's nuclear program also dominate U.S. thinking in its efforts to engage the Russian government.

Members of the subcommittee appeared split on the likelihood of a successful engagement with Russia, with subcommittee chair Robert Wexler (D.-Fla.) and others appearing skeptical.

On the other side of the debate, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Calif.) was most upbeat on Russia and dismissive of U.S. support for the former Soviet republics.

To address, what Rep. Rohrabacher described as two overarching U.S. foreign policy concerns - radical Islamism and communist China - the United States needed the support of "giant" Russia rather than an "alliance of Lilliputians." Rep. Rohrabacher also suggested that it was Russia rather than its smaller neighbors that should be brought into NATO.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D.-Mass.) expressed concerns over reports that Georgia was seeking to acquire weapons from the United States and said he was strongly opposed to such a move.

In a response, Ms. Wallander noted that the United States believes Georgia is "not ready" to receive U.S. weapons, but did not rule out such supplies in the future. For now, U.S. military support for Georgia will continue to focus on military training programs.

Russia, Turkey to hold fresh high-level talks

Russian premier Vladimir Putin will visit with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on August 6, the Russian and Turkish governments announced on July 30.

According to media reports, cooperation on nuclear energy as well as Russian oil and gas exports to and through Turkey will dominate the agenda. Earlier this year, a Russian company was the only bidder for the Turkish nuclear-energy tender. Preliminary talks have been held by Turkish and Russian officials overseeing energy issues.

Russia is Turkey's biggest trade partner, with bilateral trade surpassing $33 billion last year.

Reflecting the intensity of high-level contacts, Mr. Putin's visit will become his ninth meeting with the Turkish leader; they previously met in Russia last May.

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