Clinton signals U.S. openness on Iran dialogue

WASHINGTON Tue Jan 27, 2009 1:57pm EST

President Barack Obama (R) meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and Mideast Envoy George Mitchell (not shown) in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, January 26, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

President Barack Obama (R) meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and Mideast Envoy George Mitchell (not shown) in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, January 26, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday signaled the Obama administration's readiness to talk to Iran, saying Tehran had a "clear opportunity" to show the world it is willing to engage.

The comments are the latest by U.S. President Barack Obama and his aides advertising their openness to a dialogue with Iran, which the United States accuses of seeking nuclear weapons and fomenting terrorism, notably in neighboring Iraq.

In an interview with the Al Arabiya satellite broadcaster, Obama on Monday echoed his inaugural address by saying that "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

Neither Obama nor his top aides have said exactly how they may approach Iran but officials and analysts said they expected the United States to reach out at some point.

"There is a clear opportunity for the Iranians ... to demonstrate some willingness to engage meaningfully with the international community," Clinton told reporters. "Whether or not that hand becomes less clenched is really up to them."

"As we look at the opportunities available to us, we are going to have a very broad survey of what we think we can do," Clinton added. "There is just a lot that we are considering that I am not prepared (to discuss)."

Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said Obama did not yet have the people in place to have charted a specific approach toward Iran but that he would make one.

"I don't think that the ball is in the Iranians' court. The United States is clearly going to move forward," Wolfsthal said. "How they move forward is going to depend on Iran's behavior and their activities."

Iran denies that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, saying that its atomic program is designed to produce power so that it can export more of its valuable oil and gas.

When accused of supporting attacks on Iraqi civilians, Iran has blamed the violence on the United States, which invaded Iraq in March 2003 to topple its former dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Obama administration is reviewing U.S. policy toward Iran but analysts expect no immediate shift in the current strategy to rein in Tehran's nuclear activities -- with more sanctions likely and small steps toward dialogue.

The Bush administration held limited talks with Iran on trying to reduce violence in Iraq but said discussions on the nuclear issue was off-limits, except for a one-time meeting between the number three U.S. diplomat and his Iranian counterpart last year.

A key question for Obama will be whether he is willing to abandon the Bush administration's insistence that Iran first suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities before a wide-ranging dialogue can begin.

(Editing by David Wiessler)

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