Saturday, March 18, 2006

US: Iran Talks Offer "A Stunt"

Sunday Times:
The White House says Iran's offer to hold talks with the United States on Iraq is probably just a ploy to "divert pressure" Tehran has drawn over its nuclear program. Iran waited months to agree to a US proposal to take up the issue, and did so only after Tehran's atomic program was referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, said US national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

"The concern, therefore, is that it is simply a device by the Iranians to try to divert pressure that they are feeling in New York", Hadley said.

Tehran hopes "to drive a wedge between the United States and the other countries with which we are working on the nuclear issue, and, if you will, divert pressure and divert attention," he said.

A senior US official, who requested anonymity, was far blunter, calling Iran's offer "a stunt" and saying that Washington may agree merely to avoid "criticisms" that it did not do all it can to defuse bloody tension in Iraq.

The anonymous US official said that Washington also hoped to exploit apparent grumblings in Iran about hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear issue and his country's economy.

"We want to provoke a debate, within the (Iranian) leadership, on the wisdom of these policies," the official said. READ MORE

Hadley insisted that any talks should not be read as a signal that the United States was softening its take on Iran, saying: "Nothing has changed in the concerns that we have about the Iranian regime."

"We don't want to, in any way, by anything we do, to legitimate this regime, particularly in the eyes of their people," he said.

Washington announced in November 2005 that it was ready to have direct talks with Tehran about Iraq, seeking to discuss charges that Iranian weapons have been finding their way to Shiite fighters in Iraq.

Iran snubbed the offer at first, but Iran's Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Larijani came out Thursday after a speech to parliament and declared: "We agree to negotiate with the Americans."

US officials have sent mixed messages on the issue, calling Iran's offer "interesting" in one breath and a "stunt" in another, saying it's an new development one minute and old news the next.

Even though Washington announced late last year that its ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was empowered to hold talks with Iranians to discuss US complaints, US officials have suggested that Tehran, not Washington, was reaching out.

Earlier, a White House official sought out reporters to downplay the importance of the offer, saying on condition of anonymity, "It's almost puffery: We see this all the time."

Washington broke ties with Tehran in April 1980 after an Islamic revolution that ousted the US-backed shah and the taking of US hostages.

The last time the sides sat at the same table was in 2001 in a room with seven other countries, including Russia, for discussions over Afghanistan.

If the talks go forward, both Washington and Iran have agreed that Tehran's nuclear program is off the table.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council inched toward agreeing a revised Franco-British draft urging Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, diplomats said as China suggested that Tehran be given up to six weeks to do so.

The 15-member council met for over one hour Friday to review the revised text, which incorporated comments made by members after a series of informal sessions earlier this week.

Members agreed to meet again Tuesday after getting reactions from their capitals.