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.
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
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
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."
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".
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.
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
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
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
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