Obama faces a world of troubles; none will yield easily

WASHINGTON — When Iran agreed Thursday to let inspectors into its previously secret nuclear plant, it appeared to be at least a small victory for the United States and the coalition trying to stop the rogue nation from getting nuclear weapons.

But it was just one step on a long road with the Iranians. And it was just one spot on the globe.

President Barack Obama has a world full of challenges this fall — Afghanistan , Iran , the Mideast — all of which will test his political skills as much, if not more, than the domestic issues such as health care that dominated his summer.

"His in-box runneth over," said Richard Haass , a top diplomat and security expert in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, and now president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations .

In his most recent test, Obama was under pressure to draw a hard line with Iran as he and other leaders revealed that Iran was operating a secret nuclear facility.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy , for example, was reportedly irked that Obama wouldn't reveal the secret plant when he had a global audience at the United Nations late last month, preferring instead to wait for a smaller venue at the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh a day later.

When they met with Iranian representatives this week in Switzerland , the U.S., France and four other countries appeared to make some progress. Iran agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the nuclear plant near the holy city of Qom starting within two weeks. It also agreed to ship most of its uranium stockpile to Russia for enrichment — though just enough for peaceful purposes, not enough for a nuclear weapon.

Still, Iranian nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili made no concession on demands that his country stop enriching uranium. And the Obama administration still must work to ensure that Iran opens its nuclear facility as promised and, ultimately, that it doesn't use that reactor to produce weapons-quality uranium.

One key question for Obama will be how long to keep talking — how to know when Iran is making just enough concessions to keep dragging things along so it can keep enriching uranium. Sarkozy said that Iran should get only until the end of the year. Obama set no deadline.

"The overall problem of Iran's nuclear program remains," said one senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters in Geneva on the condition of anonymity.

"No one expected that one day would allow us to resolve international concerns about Iran's nuclear program, but I think today was a first step in what is bound to be a difficult process," the official said.

"We are in what we hope is an intensive diplomatic phase now."

So, too, Obama is entering an intense phase of the 8-year-long war in Afghanistan , as he weighs a request from the U.S. commander there to send as many as 40,000 more troops to a war the American public is turning against.

He's in a political box: Send all the troops his hand-picked commander calls critical and outrage his liberal base, or refuse to send them and risk an Afghan defeat that could open the country as a base to al Qaida terrorists, which would tar him and his party as weak.

"He's got a really difficult problem there," said Steven Schier , a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota . "The public isn't terribly happy about our involvement in Afghanistan . His base isn't anxious about sending more troops. There could be a political cost. And if he does send the troops, six months or a year later, what will he have to show for it?"

After keeping his commander at arm's length — they'd only met three times before and two of those meetings were over videoconference screens — Obama met with Army . Gen. Stanley McChrystal for 25 minutes on Friday.

They met aboard Air Force One on a tarmac in Copenhagen , as Obama was wrapping up a five-hour visit to pitch the U.S. bid for the 2016 Olympics, which was rejected. McChrystal flew there from London , where he'd given a speech, then flew back to Afghanistan .

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giant marionette through Berlin. AP/Franka Bruns