Iranian leaders have been signaling to Washington
since late 2005 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 U.S-Iranian talks. But last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
indicated for the first time that he is open to talks with Washington.
In an hour-long press conference 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 U.S. media. However, the media did report
the Iranian president's statement in the same press conference that talks with
the U.S. on Iraq were not necessary now that a government was set up.
Although Ahmadinejad did not say what Iran's conditions for talks are, the
Iranian response to the U.S. 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 U.S. proposal to Tehran on a visit last November, in which
he met Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah 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 U.S. 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, the secretary of the Supreme National Security
Council for 16 years, Hassan Rohani, stated on two different occasions that
Iran's stance on the nuclear issue is 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 Feb. 20.
Although it was the first time that Ahmadinejad had commented on the subject
of talks with the United States, his press conference remark was not the first
direct public indication by the Iranian government of interest in negotiations
with the United States 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 United States 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 Wednesday
by former foreign ministers of the United States, Germany, 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, Swiss ambassador in Tehran
Tim Guldimann, who represented U.S. interests in the country, forwarded to Washington
a one-page Iranian proposal that offered to meet U.S. 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 national intelligence officer on
The Iranians apparently believed the time was ripe for negotiations, because
of the potential chaos that could engulf Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion,
and the U.S. 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," says 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
percent 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.
Following that announcement, the two top members of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, Chairman Richard Lugar and ranking Democrat Joseph Biden, called
for direct U.S. talks with Iran.
Some analysts familiar with the thinking of Iranian national security officials
believe they have gone ahead with partial enrichment in order to position themselves
for broader talks with the United States going beyond the nuclear issue.
"Enrichment has become a big bargaining chip," says 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, says the
Iranians hope 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 IPS 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 U.S. relations with Iran could be negotiated.
(Inter Press Service)