Clinton's WikiLeaks alchemy: Can she turn outrage into unity on Iran?

Secretary Clinton is in the Persian Gulf to limit damage over the WikiLeaks disclosures. Can she translate the revelations into increased international resolve against Iran's nuclear program?

Hasan Jamali/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton answers questions after addressing a global security summit Friday, in Manama, Bahrain.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was practicing a bit of “lemons-to-lemonade” diplomacy in Bahrain Friday, recasting the week’s WikiLeaks revelation of Arab pressure on the US to bomb Iran as above all a sign of international unity against Iran’s nuclear program.

“The policy of the United States [rejecting Iranian development of a nuclear weapon] is reflected in the policies of every country in this region but for Iran,” Secretary Clinton said at a joint news conference in Manama with Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa. “I think it is fair to say there is no debate in the international community.”

Clinton made her comments in the midst of a four-country trip through Central Asia and the Persian Gulf this week that has sought to limit the damage from the release Sunday of more than 250,000 State Department cables.

Among the most explosive were communications quoting several Middle East leaders, including the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who pressed the US to act militarily against Iran’s nuclear installations before it is too late – in other words, before Iran develops a bomb. Sunni Arab concerns over Shiite Iran’s nuclear program were already well known, but the outright calls for military action revealed pressure of a different magnitude.

WikiLeaks reveals 5 Arab countries concerned about Iran

Clinton’s stop in Bahrain – and her efforts to divert attention away from the WikiLeaks revelations and toward international unity against Iran’s nuclear efforts – comes just days before world powers are scheduled to sit down again with Iran to try to resolve differences over Tehran’s uranium enrichment program.

Diplomats from six powers – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – plan to meet with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva for two days of talks. The last such talks ended abruptly in October of last year when Iran's leaders rejected a draft accord on uranium enrichment that the country’s diplomats had negotiated.

The WikiLeaks disclosures, including one cable informing Washington that the King of Bahrain had implored US Gen. David Petraeus in 2009 to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon “by whatever means necessary,” darkened an already gloomy outlook for the upcoming talks. Iranian leaders have said the talks shouldn’t even be about Iran’s nuclear program.

On the other hand, US officials are hopeful that harsher sanctions and signs of greater international unity since the last round of talks have made Iran more favorable to some kind of tension-reducing agreement with international powers.

If anything, US officials say, the WikiLeaks disclosures reveal a world that is more aligned in adamant opposition to Iran’s advancements toward nuclear weapons capability than Iran might have thought. At Friday’s press conference, Foreign Minister Khalifa said that using the cover of a supposedly peaceful civilian nuclear program to develop weapons grade nuclear material “is something we can never accept and we can never live with … in this region.”

At the same time, a new round of international sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program and military elite – passed since the last talks failed – are thought to be inflicting deepening pain on the nation’s already catastrophic economic situation.

New United Nations sanctions approved in June paved the way for the US, the European Union, Japan, and others to beef up their own sanctions regimes against Iran. And now some in Congress are saying that more is still to come.

On Friday two US senators, Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania and Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, introduced the Stop Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program Act. The legislation would impose new measures against Iran and against US and other foreign businesses doing business with Iran, in particular with its oil and gas industry.

The Senate bill echoes similar legislation introduced recently in the House of Representatives by Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of California. The legislation targets the foreign subsidiaries of US companies where the subsidiaries are carrying out sanctioned business with Iran. It also would sanction banks financing Iranian debt and companies paying in advance for Iranian oil deliveries or signing long-term contracts for Iranian oil and gas.

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