Thursday, April 06, 2006

Iran ready for high-level talks, US resists

Guy Dinmore, The Financial Times:
Iran nuclearIran has prepared a high-level delegation to hold wide-ranging talks with the US, but the Bush administration is resisting the agenda suggested by Tehran despite pressure from European allies to engage the Islamic republic, Iranian politicians have told the Financial Times.

A senior Iranian official, Mohammad Nahavandian, has flown to Washington to “lobby” over the issue, aaccording to a top Iranian adviser outside the US. However, the Iranian mission to the United Nations insisted he was in Washington on private business. READ MORE

Iran’s willingness to engage the US on Iraq, regional security and the nuclear issue, is believed to have the approval of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It represents the most serious attempt by the Islamic republic to reach out to the US since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But the White House insisted on Thursday that its own offer of talks with Iran, extended several months ago by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, was limited to the subject of Iraq.

There are none and none are scheduled,” Stephen Hadley, national security adviser, was quoted by a spokesman as saying about the prospect of talks with the Iranian delegation in Baghdad next week.

A senior Iranian adviser said the Iranian delegation was headed by Ali Hossein-Tash, the main deputy to Ali Larijani who is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and the chief official dealing with the nuclear issue. Three other negotiators, all attached to the Council, include a deputy intelligence minister who was previously based in Baghdad, a former Revolutionary Guards member and Kurdish expert, and a political specialist.

Mr Nahavandian, a deputy for economic affairs to Mr Larijani, is in Washington, several Iranian sources told the FT, revealing the rare presence of a senior Iranian in the US capital. White House and State Department officials denied all knowledge of his presence.

The Bush administration is resisting pressure from its European allies to engage Iran directly over its alleged nuclear weapons programme rather than leave negotiations to the EU3 of France, Germany and the UK. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, raised this issue with Mr Hadley this week, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is understood to have spoken about it with President George W. Bush.

Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, stressed Iran’s willingness to talk in an opinion piece published by the New York Times on Thursday. He denied US claims that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons programme and said Iran was ready for intrusive international inspections.

“Pressure and threats do not resolve problems. Finding solutions requires political will and a readiness to engage in serious negotiations. Iran is ready. We hope the rest of the world will join us,” he said.

One US insider suggested the Bush administration might agree to broaden the agenda after an initial meeting restricted to Iraq.

Meanwhile, the US rhetoric is sounding tougher by the week. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state, yesterday accused Iran of being “expansionist”, “a central banker of terrorism” and directing attacks on US citizens.

Last week, the UN Security Council issued a mildly worded presidential statement calling on Iran to resume its suspension of fuel cycle development. Russia blocked tougher language. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, told reporters yesterday the next diplomatic step was to pass a legally binding “chapter seven” resolution requiring Iran to suspend its nuclear programme.