Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Iran May Finally Be Ready to Talk

John Daniszewski and Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times:
In spite of the hostile rhetoric in recent days over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Islamic Republic may be losing its long-standing reluctance to speak directly with the United States, politicians and analysts here say.

There is a growing body of opinion in Iran that talks with Washington on the nuclear question and regional security issues could be in the country's interest. For the first time, reformers and conservatives appear to be in agreement on that question.

But as Tehran has shifted toward engagement with Washington, the U.S. has appeared to be moving in the opposite direction.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that channels exist for limited talks with Iran, mentioning the U.S. envoys to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York.

"I think that that is the appropriate level of engagement given our deep concerns about Iranian policy on the nuclear issue, on the terrorism issue and indeed in terms of the Iranian regime's treatment of its own people," she said.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John R. Bolton said Monday, "I don't think we have anything to say to the Iranians." READ MORE

For almost three decades, Iran shunned contacts with the country labeled here as the Great Satan.

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against relations with the United States during the early days of the Iranian revolution. The country's conservative religious establishment stuck to that line.

Now, that refusal to talk is softening.

Mehdi Karroubi, the former parliament speaker and a close associate of Khomeini, said in an interview that the fatwa was not meant to last forever.

"The break in relations is not forever and not for eternity," said the bearded, white-turbaned mullah, noting that he was expressing his personal opinion. Sipping tea in an elegant reception room in a house near one of the shah's former palaces, he added, "We only need a pioneer, someone to take the first step."

One factor pushing the change is the perception in Iran that the country would be coming to talks in a position of relative strength.

Iran's growing influence in the region, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. could benefit from Iranian cooperation, allows it to engage the United States on a more equal footing, said Amir Mohebian, political editor of Resalat, a hard-line conservative newspaper.

Under former President Mohammad Khatami, Iran could only move one step forward, two steps back, he said. Under new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranians will move two steps forward, one back, he predicted.

The rapprochement would not necessarily be from "love or emotion, but out of biological necessity," said Nasser Hadian, professor of international law at Tehran University.

In an interview with Time magazine last month, Ali Larijani, the country's supreme national security secretary, said that from Iran's perspective, talks with the United States could be useful.

"We have no problems in negotiating on nuclear issues, and also issues of interest to Muslims, things that will bring calm to the region, provided that they are honest and that Mr. Bush does not harangue us," said Larijani, a conservative politician who opposed Ahmadinejad in the first round of last year's presidential election.

From the late 1990s until 2002, U.S. policy was to try to engage the Iranian government and coax it gradually to democracy. Beginning with President Bush's "axis of evil" speech in 2002, the U.S. reverted to a policy of containment of Iran.

More recently, the administration appears to have endorsed bringing about the overthrow of the government as its goal, seeking $85 million from Congress for that purpose. The tougher stance is supported by many Iranian exiles in the United States, who see the government as irredeemable.

The election of Ahmadinejad, an ultra-religious, unapologetic hard-liner — and his comments last year questioning the Holocaust and saying that Israel should be wiped from the map — gave ammunition to those in the West and in Israel who argue that Iran must be confronted, not negotiated with.

But advocates of talks note that in Iran, Ahmadinejad is not the only power determining policy. Nor is he in charge of Iran's external affairs, which fall mainly under the purview of the Supreme National Security Council and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader.

Supporters of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani — still a potent figure as head of the Expediency Council, which coordinates among the different branches of the state — are among those arguing that dialogue would be a better course for Iran than confrontation.

"We are in favor of a dialogue. Before, the fundamentalists would not have approved, but now they [also] think it would be the thing to do," said Mohammed Atrianfar, editor of the moderate Shargh newspaper, who is close to Rafsanjani.

Hadian believes the elements exist for a compromise between Iran and the United States. There is no consensus among the Iranian elite to weaponize the country's nuclear technology, as Western officials suspect, he says. He asserts that the government has agreed only to seek nuclear knowledge and a limited capability to build weapons as a bargaining chip and a deterrent if it is threatened.

Most of the government believes that having such weapons would actually increase Iran's vulnerability, he said. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East could eliminate Iran's conventional military superiority and drive Arab neighbors further into the arms of America, he said.

The nuclear issue would not be the most important item to be resolved in talks with the United States, Hadian added. For the Americans, he said, the key issues are cooperation on Iraq and curtailment of Iran's support of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The Iranians would like security guarantees and a push for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, he said.

Strategically, he said, the United States and Iran share many aims, including stability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as free movement of oil through the Persian Gulf.

"Both sides have demands," he said. "For a fundamental resolution of the problem, the U.S. should engage, and other issues should be on the table."

The two nations "need one another. They just cannot ignore one another," he said.

As a matter of pride, many Iranians would like to be taken seriously enough by the United States to be engaged directly.

Moreover, diplomats said that what Iran wants most, only the U.S. can give: security guarantees and access to technology and foreign investment.

With U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan and with Israel clearly hostile, Iran is worried about attack, those diplomats say.

"The U.S. keeps talking about regime change in Iran, and that makes them nervous. Only the U.S. can make a security guarantee," said a diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Vienna. And even the threat of sanctions has chilled the Iranian economy.

How talks might take place remains unknown. One option discussed by third-country diplomats would be something akin to the six-party talks underway with North Korea in which the U.S. has joined South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov mentioned that model Friday. Lavrov proposed a group that would include Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the IAEA. Others have talked about Britain, France and Germany as well as Russia, China, the U.S., Iran, and perhaps South Africa, a nonaligned country that gave up its nuclear program.

"Then the U.S. can say it's multilateral, but when they are all in the room, there will be an opportunity to talk," one diplomat said.

Whatever device is used to open talks, "the question is not about the past. It is how to shape the future," said Mahmood Vaezi, Iran's former deputy foreign minister and now a government advisor. "Both sides now are waiting for the other side to change his view. Both sides should revise their positions together."

Daniszewski reported from Tehran and Rubin from Vienna. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations also contributed to this report.