Iran to Obama: Let's talk — or talk about having talks

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 10, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Iran gave its first sign Tuesday that it's interested in exploring President Barack Obama's offers of dialogue, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying his country "is ready to hold talks, but talks in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect."

Ahmadinejad's remarks, made at a rally to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, were couched with the usual demands for changes in U.S. policy, and they're unlikely to lead to any short-term breakthrough.

However, it was the most positive response yet by an Iranian leader to Obama's repeated signals that he'll offer Tehran a new approach.

They came hours after Obama, at a Monday night news conference, said in the clearest terms yet that he'd pursue diplomacy with Iran. "My expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face," Obama said.

Any talks — or even talks about talks — with Iran are bound to be fraught with difficulties.

The country's leadership is divided, with supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holding ultimate decision-making power. Hardliners oppose an opening to the U.S., which poses risks for a country that has made anti-Americanism a central pillar of its rule for three decades, according to foreign diplomats in Tehran and Washington.

The substantive disputes are daunting, too. The U.S. and European nations want Iran to halt enrichment of uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapon; stop its funding of militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah; and improve its human rights record.

Iran wants recognition of its status as a major regional player in the Middle East; and security guarantees that Washington won't try to overthrow the government. It refuses to suspend its nuclear work.

Shortly after taking office, Obama and his top aides launched a closely held review of U.S. policy toward Iran.

As part of that review, they've been debating whether to make a concrete gesture to Iran soon, or wait until after Iran's June presidential contest, in which Ahmadinejad is standing for re-election, according to U.S. officials and foreign diplomats. They requested anonymity because no final decisions have been announced.

A new factor in that calculation is the announcement Sunday by former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, whose efforts to liberalize Iranian society ultimately were frustrated, that he'll run for his old job.

Obama's Monday night remarks on Iran weren't influenced by the Khatami announcement, said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity because the policy isn't yet final.

"As the president mentioned, we are reviewing U.S. policy with an eye toward making clear that Iran has rights as a member of the international community, but that with those rights come responsibilities," the official said. "We are focused less on timing and more on getting this right."

Among the steps believed to be under consideration are a letter replying to Ahmadinejad's note of congratulations to Obama after his election victory, and a request to open a U.S. interests section in Tehran. It would be the first American diplomatic presence there since the U.S. embassy was seized and its staff held captive from November 1979 to January 1981.

Such gestures could strengthen Ahmadinejad, given the strong public support among Iranians for warmer ties with the U.S.

Some top Obama aides argue, however, that Iranian politics are so murky that it's impossible to know what electoral impact U.S. moves will have, and that shouldn't be a reason for delay.

"None of us, I think, has reached a decision yet," a senior European diplomat said Tuesday, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "There are arguments for doing it early. And there are arguments also for waiting to see what happens."

Iran experts said Obama's best strategy might be to take symbolic steps now, but save any major initiative for later.

"My guess is, we will wait until after the election . . . or maybe, see how smaller efforts proceed," said former CIA analyst Judith Yaphe, now at the National Defense University in Washington.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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