Iran Nuclear NewsU.S. envoys head out on a mission to rally...

U.S. envoys head out on a mission to rally Iran’s neighbors

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ImageNew York Times: With tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions hitting new levels, the United States is mounting a diplomatic full-court press in the Middle East, sending four top diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to confer with Arab and Israeli leaders. The New York Times

By MARK LANDLER

ImageWASHINGTON — With tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions hitting new levels, the United States is mounting a diplomatic full-court press in the Middle East, sending four top diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to confer with Arab and Israeli leaders.

The envoys’ visits to Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were planned separately in recent weeks, but they now have a common purpose, administration officials said: to reassure Iran’s neighbors that the United States will stand firm against Tehran, and to enlist other countries in a global effort to put pressure on the Iranian authorities.

Mrs. Clinton will play a central part in the effort, leaving Saturday for Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where she will meet with the Saudi leader, King Abdullah. Officials said she was expected to press the Saudis to reassure China that Saudi Arabia would offset any disruption in oil shipments that could occur if Beijing were to back new United Nations sanctions against Iran.

China, which has major investments in Iran’s oil and gas industry, has been the main holdout in the American-led effort to impose tougher sanctions against Iran through the United Nations Security Council.

In a sign of the importance of the trip, Mrs. Clinton stuck to her plans even after her husband, former President Bill Clinton, entered the hospital for a heart procedure on Thursday, though she delayed her departure by a day.

“If you’re talking about the Middle East writ large,” said the State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, “Iran has an influence in each compartment. Part of it is the nuclear issue, part of it is Iran’s support for extremist groups, part of it is about how Iran is going to relate to the rest of the neighborhood.”

The American officials, Mr. Crowley noted, will also discuss other issues, like the Arab-Israeli peace process, building Palestinian institutions on the West Bank, and the administration’s long-term effort to reach out to Syria. But in these issues too, Iran casts a long shadow.

Both of Mrs. Clinton’s lieutenants, James B. Steinberg and Jacob J. Lew, are headed to the region. Mr. Lew will leave this weekend for Egypt, Israel and Jordan, while Mr. Steinberg travels to Israel the week of Feb. 21 to take part in discussions with Israel that are likely to be dominated by Iran.

The State Department’s under secretary for political affairs, William Burns, has perhaps the most challenging itinerary, traveling to Syria, one of Iran’s staunchest allies in the region, and to Lebanon, which holds a seat on the Security Council and is likely to resist sanctions against Iran.

Mr. Burns, administration officials said, will also discuss plans to return an American ambassador to Syria after a hiatus of five years. The Bush administration withdrew its envoy in 2005 to protest the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri. Washington has long suspected Syria of being involved in the attack, a charge it denies.

By reaching out to Syria, analysts said, the United States may loosen the links between Damascus and Tehran, though administration officials caution that progress in this area is likely to be slow.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a sudden flip of the switch, where they go from Iran’s orbit to our orbit,” said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. “But the Syrians do need to see we envision a Middle East in which they’re playing a constructive role.”

In his visit to Israel, Mr. Steinberg will take part in a strategic dialogue intended to touch on counterterrorism and regional security issues. Iran, which Israel regards as an existential threat, is likely to be at the top of the agenda, American officials said.

Iran’s announcement that it had begun enriching uranium to 20 percent purity brought expressions of alarm from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who said this week that the United Nations must impose “crippling sanctions, and these sanctions must be applied right now.”

Administration officials said they were pleased that, as one official put it, “the Iranians will see so many American officials floating around the region at the same time. They’ll definitely take notice.”

Still, some analysts said, the cavalcade of diplomats will not ultimately make a difference if the United States fails to develop a credible plan for confronting Iran or muster international support for it.

“The attitude in the Middle East countries is going to be, ‘Can we count on the United States?’ ” said Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If the Obama administration wants to persuade people it can deter Iran, it’s going to require continuing high-level attention. It’s going to require cold war-level diplomacy.”

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