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    Middle East
     May 2, 2006
Iranian cries in the wilderness
By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - Iranian leaders have been signaling to Washington since late last year that Iran wanted direct negotiations with the United States on Tehran's nuclear program and other outstanding issues between the two countries.

The campaign began with private talks between Iranian officials and foreign visitors in the country, and has included public suggestions by members of the Iranian parliament for US-Iranian talks. But last week, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad indicated for the first time that he was open to talks with Washington.

In an hour-long press conference on April 24, Ahmadinejad said Iran "is ready to talk to all world countries, but negotiation with

anybody has its own conditions", and then specifically named the United States. "If these conditions are met, we will negotiate."

Ahmadinejad's remark, which was reported by the independent Paris-based Iran News Service, went unnoticed in the US media. However, the media did report the Iranian president's statement in the same press conference that talks with the US on Iraq were not necessary now that a government had been set up in Baghdad.

Although Ahmadinejad did not say what Iran's conditions for talks were, the Iranian response to the US proposal last November for bilateral talks on Iraq may be a good indication of what Tehran has in mind. When Iraqi President Jalal Talabani took the US proposal to Tehran on a visit in November, in which he met Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top leaders, he was told Iran would agree to talks on two conditions: they would remain private and they would involve all outstanding issues between the two countries.

Despite a common view in the media, reflecting official US views, that Ahmadinejad has taken Iranian policy in a much more radical direction since he took office last August, Iranian leaders, including those who have been critical of some of Ahmadinejad's public rhetoric, have publicly emphasized that Iran's nuclear policy is not determined by the president.

In late February and early March Hassan Rohani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years, stated on two different occasions that Iran's stance on the nuclear issue was decided by the state's top officials and not by the current government. "Iran's general policies do not change with new governments," he said on February 20.

Although it was the first time that Ahmadinejad had commented on the subject of talks with the US, his press-conference remark was not the first direct public indication by the Iranian government of interest in negotiations with the US on both the nuclear issue and other security questions.

On March 6, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said, "What we are saying is that if America abandons its threats and creates a positive atmosphere in which it does not seek to influence the process of negotiations by imposing preconditions, then there will be no impediment to negotiations."

These new public signals came against a background of a quiet diplomatic campaign by Iranian officials in recent months to communicate Iran's readiness to negotiate directly with the US on broad security issues. They have sent that message through both diplomats and other prominent figures who have met with them in Tehran.

A statement published in the International Herald Tribune by former foreign ministers of the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, France and Luxembourg said the five European members of the group had all "met with influential Iranian officials during the past few months and found a widespread interest among them in conducting a broad discussion with the United States on security issues".

The current campaign is not the first by Iran to interest Washington in direct negotiations on security issues. In early May 2003, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, who represented US interests in the country, forwarded to Washington a one-page Iranian proposal that offered to meet US concerns about the nuclear issue and Iranian support for Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli groups, in return for security guarantees and an end to economic sanctions.

That negotiating initiative, which was said to have the support of Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council, was also preceded by a quiet campaign of signals by Iranian officials through both official diplomatic channels and non-official channels of Iranian interest in such negotiations, according to Paul Pillar, who was then the United States' national intelligence officer on Iran.

The Iranians apparently believed the time was ripe for negotiations, because of the potential chaos that could engulf Iraq in the wake of the US invasion, and the US need for the cooperation of Iranian-sponsored Shi'ite political parties and military groups who were responsive to Iranian advice.

Bush administration officials had also begun in late 2002 to express alarm at the progress made in Iran's nuclear program and alleged Iranian plans to develop a nuclear weapons capability. "The Iranians expected and had plenty of reason to expect that this would be a good moment to approach the United States," said Pillar.

The George W Bush administration ignored the Iranian proposal in 2003 and has publicly rejected possible talks with Iran on the nuclear issue in recent months. However, Iran's announcement in early April that it had achieved a 3.6% level of enrichment of uranium - the first step toward having a level of enrichment necessary to make a nuclear weapon - has made a negotiated solution to the issue much more urgent.

After that announcement, the two top members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chairman Richard Lugar and ranking Democrat Joseph Biden, called for direct US talks with Iran.

Some analysts familiar with the thinking of Iranian national-security officials believe they have gone ahead with partial enrichment to position themselves for broader talks with the US going beyond the nuclear issue.

"Enrichment has become a big bargaining chip," said Iranian journalist Najmeh Bozorgmehr, who has had access to top Iranian leaders in off-the-record interviews for the past several years. "They are producing facts on the ground that would give them leverage in negotiations with the United States."

Bozorgmehr, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the Iranians hoped to get the removal of sanctions, security guarantees and guaranteed fuel supply in return for concessions on the fuel-enrichment issue.

Journalist Praful Bidwai reported for Inter Press Service last week that government officials and other experts in Tehran told him there was "fairly broad agreement" that a compromise proposal on the nuclear issue and security guarantees and normalization of US relations with Iran could be negotiated.

Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published last June.

(Inter Press Service)

Iran hedges down to the wire (Apr 29, '06)

Iran: Let the democratic process work (Apr 28, '06)

Iran, US in tug of war over Middle East (Apr 27, '06)

What's really happening in Tehran (Apr 26, '06)


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