U.S. Opens Window for Iran Talks

Daily News Article   —   Posted on September 23, 2010

(by Jay Solomon in New York and Richard Boudreaux in Moscow) – The Obama administration said Iran has offered new signs of a willingness to negotiate on its nuclear program, as Washington and other world powers pressed at the United Nations for an immediate resumption of a dialogue with Tehran.

The comments, made by senior U.S. officials on Wednesday, came a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told American journalists in New York that he saw no “alternative” but to resume negotiations with the international community on the nuclear issue.

Still, U.S. and European officials said they remain skeptical of Tehran’s desire to negotiate an agreement to end or limit the Iranian nuclear program. They noted that in recent months Iran has expanded its production of nuclear fuel while increasingly limiting access to inspectors from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

U.S. and European officials say they believe pervasive new U.N., U.S. and European Union sanctions enacted against Iran since June have hit Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government considerably harder than Tehran anticipated-possibly explaining the Iranian leader’s stated willingness for talks.

The U.S., by reaching out to Tehran and saying it sees signals Iran may be willing to talk, is supporting a recent White House campaign to convince the international community that it still has time to contain Iran’s nuclear program and that its efforts so far have been effective.

Allies such as Israel, however, say Tehran could be only months from achieving a nuclear weapons capability, while critics of the administration say diplomatic overtures simply buy time for Iran.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dealt Iran another blow, issuing a decree that prohibits delivery of S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran-halting a politically sensitive, long-delayed weapons deal with a longtime trading partner.

The move brings trade rules for Russia and its companies into line with the latest round of U.N. sanctions against Iran in June, which Moscow supported.

The announcement coincided with a new offer to Iran by Russia, the U.S., the three other U.N. Security Council members and Germany, the so-called P5+1, to enter negotiations over its nuclear program.

“With some signs that Iran may be willing to meet this autumn, [the U.S. and international community are] focused heavily on preparations for such talks,” said a senior U.S. official on Wednesday.

The official cited Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments, as well as messages passed by Iranian diplomats in recent months to representatives of the P5+1, the international diplomatic bloc trying to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue.

But there is a growing assessment in Washington and many European capitals that even if Mr. Ahmadinejad is committed to talks, he would be unlikely to deliver results in an Iranian political system where his power is increasingly being challenged.

“It’s hard to say at this point” if Mr. Ahmadinejad is serious, said the senior U.S. official. “We’ve all seen a lot of different kinds of statements out of the Iranian leadership.”

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U.S. and European officials said [the EU’s foreign-policy chief Catherine] Ashton and her staff have repeatedly sought in recent weeks to reach out to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to follow up on the positive signals coming from Tehran. But their overtures have been rebuffed, fueling a belief that there are splits in Iran’s leadership over the issue of negotiations.

In the past month, Mr. Ahmadinejad has faced growing criticism from conservative allies [in Iran], many of whom now accuse him of overriding the [Iranian] parliament, ignoring the wishes of the country’s supreme leader and marginalizing the foreign ministry.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, however, maintains political support from his traditional power base among the poor and members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

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Moscow is among Iran’s chief weapons suppliers, and the S-300s were viewed as critical in shielding Iran from air attacks. Mr. Medvedev’s action also barred Russia from supplying tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, ships and missile systems to Iran.

The U.S. and Israel had lobbied Russia to scrap plans to fulfill its 2007 deal to supply the S-300s, which Iran could use to protect its nuclear facilities from attack. Western governments suspect that some of those facilities are involved in developing a capacity to make nuclear weapons, a charge Iran rejects.

The Obama administration is also stepping up steps to isolate Iran from its neighbors. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet for the first time with her Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, according to U.S. and Syrian officials.

Damascus is Tehran’s most important military ally. U.S. officials say they are trying to drive a wedge between Iran and Syria. Washington is also seeking to engage Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a revitalized Middle East peace process.

-Farnaz Fassihi contributed to this article.

Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com and Richard Boudreaux at richard.boudreaux@wsj.com.

Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com

Questions

1. a) Who is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
b) Why are U.S. and European officials skeptical of Ahmadinejad's announcement that Iran will resume negotiations on ending/limiting their nuclear program?

2. What do U.S. and European officials say might have caused Ahmadinejad's willingness to resume negotiations on Iran's nuclear program?

3. What message is the White House sending the international community by reaching out to Tehran to resume negotiations?

4. Why do critics of the White House oppose attempts to resume negotiations with Iran?

5. The world discovered Iran's secret nuclear program in 2002. Since that time, various negotiations and sanctions have been implemented by the U.S., and the U.N. in an attempt to persuade Iran to end its nuclear program. During that time, Iran continued working to develop nuclear weapons. It is believed that Iran will have nuclear weapons very soon and will possibly use them. Do you think resuming negotiations with Iran is the best strategy for the U.S. to take? Explain your answer.


Background

IRAN'S NUCLEAR PROGRAM: