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Obama agenda: Iran, Afghanistan

NBC's Andrea Mitchell points out that as Undersecretary of State William Burns sat down today with his Iranian counterpart, Saeed Jalili, the U.S. side braced for a lecture. Jalili is known for delivering lengthy 40-minute non-stop speeches denouncing the U.S. at similar sessions. The difference this time is that for the first time in decades, U.S. officials in Geneva say they are willing to have one-on-one conversations with the Iranians during informal "breaks" in the group sessions. That is a big change. When Burns attended the last negotiations with Iran in July of 2008, the Bush White House only authorized him to listen, not talk. And not to hold any sidebars. Officials in Geneva say this is the first test of President Obama'[s policy of diplomatic engagement. In fact, these Iran talks follow another little-noticed breakthrough: in Havana for scheduled talks on the resumption of postal service between Cuba and the United States, State Department negotiator Biso Williams was surprised to be invited to stay for an additional six days and hold unprecedented, sanctioned talks with Cuban dissidents, as well as wide-ranging talks with Cuban officials.

The New York Times writes that the U.S. and its allies hope to "draw Iran into a serious negotiation that will open up the country to serious nuclear inspections, suspend Iran's nuclear enrichment program and reassure its neighbors that its intentions are peaceful." More: "Washington would still like to begin bilateral talks with Iran on a broader relationship, including trade and Tehran's support for Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi insurgent and terrorist groups, from Hezbollah to Islamic Jihad." But as NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports, those talks cannot be "open ended" given the Qom facility.

The Washington Post: "U.S. officials said they hope the meeting will launch a set of negotiations that could rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions and possibly reorient Iran's role in the world. But before the talks started, U.S. officials were skeptical that Tehran would act decisively at Thursday's meeting." And catch this: "In what officials said was an unrelated development, the State Department announced that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his wife had been granted last-minute U.S. visas Wednesday morning. Mottaki, who came from the U.N. General Assembly to Washington to visit the Iranian Interests Section, held no meetings with U.S. officials during his brief stay. He is believed to be the first senior Iranian official to visit Washington since relations with the two countries were cut off."

On the Olympics, the New York Times' Gail Collins writes, "There are downsides to Obama's decision to race off to Copenhagen, none of them involving failure to make the country safe. One is that it might actually not make sense for Chicago to spend tons of money to win the right to stuff the city with new places to throw a javelin." And: "What if Obama goes to Denmark and Chicago loses anyway? Let's hope the White House has been guaranteed that the fix is in. If you're going to waste the administrative momentum on a big gamble, it really ought to be to slow global warming or to reform Wall Street, not to make sure the 2016 triathlon champion wins his medal in Illinois. The worst downside about Obama's trip to Denmark is that even though the Republicans' complaints are spurious, he did say the other day that he couldn't go because he was too busy 'making real the promise of quality, affordable health care for every American.' … I prefer to think that Obama suddenly agreed to go to Denmark not because Chicago couldn't win without him, but because he just needed a short break from thinking about Max Baucus."

David Broder likes the idea and even invokes the Cubs: "I'm astonished that some carping critics have faulted Obama for making the 18-hour excursion to Copenhagen to schmooze the IOC members, who on Friday will decide among Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Madrid and Chicago. Tip O'Neill taught a previous generation that all politics is local, and this is the best favor the president could possibly do for his adopted home town."

On Afghanistan, the Washington Post points out as we have, "With much of his party largely opposed to expanding military operations in Afghanistan, President Obama could be forced into the awkward political position of turning to congressional Republicans for support if he follows the recommendations of the commanding U.S. general there." And: "Congressional Democrats have begun promoting a compromise package of additional resources for Afghanistan that would emphasize training for Afghan security forces but deny Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal the additional combat troops he has indicated he needs to regain the initiative against the Taliban insurgency. The emerging Democratic consensus is likely to constrain the president as he considers how best to proceed with an increasingly unpopular war."

The New York Daily News on yesterday's marathon Afghanistan meeting: "The wild card in the mix is [Secretary of Defense] Gates in the debate over whether a counterinsurgency strategy with more ground troops is the best way forward compared with a counterterror plan favoring air strikes. Gates "has clearly been a strong proponent of counterinsurgency," a Pentagon spokesman said, "but he wants to have a thorough discussion with the President and the rest of the national security team."

The Hill: "White House press secretary Robert Gibbs took a shot at the House minority whip Wednesday." Cantor had "accused Obama of dragging his feet on sending more troops to the region," to which Gibbs responded by "saying that Republicans like Cantor weren't as impatient when former President George W. Bush was considering the Iraq surge strategy." Gibbs: ""I don't recall Congressman Cantor saying that when Gen. David McKiernan's request for 30,000 additional troops sat on the desk of the previous commander in chief."

On health care, health reform advocacy group, Health Care for America Now has a new ad taking aim at insurance company CEOs with an ad called "Mansion." It will air on local broadcast and cable TV in DC, Maine (Snowe), Philadelphia and Minneapolis as well, as on MSNBC nationally. The group will also drive around a van to WellPoint's CEO's home in Indianapolis and a woman who claims to have been denied treatment by CIGNA will go to that company's CEO's hoe in Philadelphia.

President Hillary Clinton? Here's a fun moment: Presiding over a UN Security Council hearing yesterday, Secretary of State Clinton "finally got to declare herself president on Wednesday -- of the United Nations Security Council. Clearly looking to break the ice in a room full of dour diplomats, Clinton ended her address by saying, 'I resume now my function as president of the council. I kind of like being a President,' she added, causing the room to burst into laughter."