Saturday, March 11, 2006

Iran claims US has offered peace talks

Lindsey Hilsum, The Times:
EVEN as politicians in Tehran and Washington stoked the fires of confrontation last week, America was said to have been asking Iran for help in calming the violence in Iraq.

A senior Iranian intelligence official showed Channel 4 News a letter in Persian purportedly signed by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Baghdad, inviting Iranian representatives to Iraq for talks.

Last November Khalilzad — who speaks Persian and dealt with the Iranians during negotiations over Afghanistan — said he had been authorised by President George W Bush to try to engage Iran and that its co-operation was needed to secure long-term peace in Iraq.

Most of Iraq’s senior Shi’ite politicians lived in exile in Iran during the latter years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, and the British and the Americans have both accused Iranian elements of arming and training Shi’ite militant groups.

The Iranian official claimed the invitation was renewed two weeks ago, just as America ratcheted up the rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear programme.

A source close to the Iranian government said Tehran was open to a meeting but it would have to be in a neutral country. While the Americans would like to limit discussions to Iraq, the Iranians hoped this might eventually enable them to have a dialogue about the nuclear programme.

Last night, however, the US embassy in Baghdad said in a statement: Ambassador Khalilzad has the authority to meet with Iranian officials to discuss issues of mutual concern. But he has not sent a letter in any language to the Iranians.” READ MORE

The talk all week in Tehran has been of war. The Iranian people are being prepared. On the eve of the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed a huge crowd in the town of Khorramabad, in the mountainous southwest of the country. He invoked the spectre of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, and Iran’s continuing isolation.

“Today humanity is caught in a web of powerful nations who bully us to follow their ways,” he said. “They hit you on the head and you’re not supposed to moan. When they see a brave nation like Iran standing strong it makes them angry. The world must know that if anyone tries to violate the rights of the Iranian nation, we will place the blot of shame and regret on their forehead.”

The crowd roared and waved posters of the diminutive, bearded president who has come to symbolise Iran’s determination to enrich uranium whatever the political or diplomatic cost.

Yet while the political elite has reached a consensus that Iran should proceed with the enrichment programme, many among its number are alarmed that Ahmadinejad’s bombast is tipping the country into crisis.

“Any policy which causes the isolation of Iran, increases threats and as a result spends financial resources, which belong to people, for slogans, is an unsuccessful foreign policy,” writes Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice-president under the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami.

With the reformists now shut out of power, Abtahi has resorted to an internet blog to get his message across.There is little time left. I wish others . . . would replace the present negotiating team . . . so that the people would not be forced to pay for their slogans. May God help this country.”

With belligerent talk from senior administration officials in Washington all week, the possibility of Iran lowering the rhetorical tone is small.

The government thinks it can manage public opinion but that’s a mistake,” said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University. Once they make a deal, the people will feel betrayed.”

Hadian is a childhood friend of Ahmadinejad. Driving around Narmak, the working-class suburb of east Tehran where they grew up, he pointed out the street corner cafe where they used to drink chocolate. They studied and played football together, but while Hadian went on to university in America, Ahmadinejad became embroiled in radical Islamic politics at home. His comment last October that Israel should be “wiped off the map” harked back to those days.

“He used to say these things when he was head of his party, Hezbollah al-Ansar, and no one took any notice,” explained Hadian. “He hasn’t fully grasped that he’s the president of the country. He’s beginning to get it now, but it’s a bit late.”

While western politicians have long forgotten the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian government keeps the memory alive with honours for veterans who are wheeled out for every nationalist rally. European and American backing for Saddam in that conflict has left a scar.

Many Iranians believe western countries oppose the nuclear programme not because they see it as a military threat but because they want to suppress a weaker, Islamic nation.

Those who argue against nuclear power, let alone nuclear weapons, can scarcely make their voices heard.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor of Channel 4 News