- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Obama administration turned up the pressure on Iran to agree to negotiations on its nuclear program Wednesday, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton threatening “crippling sanctions” on Tehran if it fails to respond to Western diplomatic overtures.

Mrs. Clinton’s language was tougher than most of the administration’s comments on Iran since it took office, although she insisted that Washington’s preference is for Iran to open its program to international inspection and supervision in exchange for political and economic incentives.

Preventing Tehran from building a nuclear weapon is “imperative” for the United States and its allies, and Washington’s deeper engagement on such issues gives it “more leverage with other nations” and a “much stronger international footing,” Mrs. Clinton said.

“We are more than willing to reach out to the Iranians to discuss a range of issues if they are willing to reach back,” she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But we are also laying the groundwork for the kind of very tough … crippling sanctions that might be necessary in the event that our offers are either rejected or the process is inconclusive or unsuccessful.”

Earlier this month, the administration dropped a previous U.S. condition that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before Washington would join negotiations led by the European Union. Suspension remains the goal, officials say, but not a precondition for talking.

“We are deploying new approaches to the threat posed by Iran, and we are doing so with our eyes wide open and with no illusions,” Mrs. Clinton said.

“We know the imperative of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” she said. “After years during which the United States basically sat on the sidelines, we are now a full partner” in negotiations.

Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and the committee’s chairman, asked Mrs. Clinton how much time the administration is willing to give Iran to respond to recent overtures from the West.

Mrs. Clinton did not answer the question directly.

“It is going to be a more successful engagement if our partners around the world understand they must work with us,” she said.

Her tough talk came as Iran said it is open to discussions but that it would press ahead with its work to develop atomic energy nevertheless.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran … welcomes constructive and fair talks based on mutual respect and believes current problems could be resolved through talks,” Tehran said in a statement. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue its nuclear activities in an active interaction with the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

During the hearing, Mrs. Clinton rebuked the Pakistani government for a peace deal it reached last week with militants in the country’s northwest, which allows the militants to impose strict Islamic law in exchange for a cease-fire with Taliban insurgents.

“I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists,” she said. Later, she added that the administration still thinks the Pakistani government shares U.S. goals in defeating terrorism.

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