Thursday, June 01, 2006

Pressure Mounts on Iran to Accept US Offer of Talks

Roula Khalaf, The Financial Times:
Pressure mounted on Iran on Thursday to consider carefully the US offer of conditional talks as world powers met in Vienna to iron out a broader package of incentives to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

The first official reactions from Iran were not encouraging but nor did they represent an outright rejection of the US overture.

Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, played down the significance of the US change in policy and shrugged off American demands for a halt in all uranium enrichment and reprocessing as a pre-condition for dialogue. But he also said Tehran was ready to hold talks “over mutual concerns”. READ MORE

Many Iranian commentators, however, were deeply sceptical of the US readiness to join Europeans in multilateral talks with Iran, insisting the offer was not serious because it included a conditionality that was unacceptable to Tehran.

Hossein Shariatmadari, influential fundamentalist commentator and managing director of the Keyhan newspaper, condemned the US offer as a “trickand argued that giving in to US demands would amount to “blackmail”.

But world leaders hailed Wednesday’s announcement by Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, as a dramatic and welcome shift in US policy that would bolster the European strategy of offering incentives as well as threatening penalties.

Foreign ministers from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China were meeting last night to agree on a set of other economic and political benefits for Iran if it suspended the most sensitive parts of its nuclear programme.

The foreign ministry in Russia, which has pressed for a softer international approach towards Tehran, described the US move as “a real chance” to achieve a settlement over Iran. “We call on Iran to constructively respond to it [the chance],” the ministry said.

The White House urged Tehran to take time to consider the proposal while European officials warned against hasty reactions.

Iran’s strategy in recent months has been to escalate the dispute and accelerate its nuclear experiments. The objective has been to return eventually to the negotiating table with European governments – but after forcing them and the US to accept a small-scale uranium enrichment programme.

The US policy change, however, alters the diplomatic dynamic. After months of Iranian brinkmanship, the US has regained the initiative and sent the ball back into Iran’s court.

Some western diplomats agreed with Iranian analysts that the US policy reversal was no more than a tactical manoeuvre intended to highlight Iranian intransigence and win Russian and Chinese support for a tough United Nations resolution penalising Tehran.

But the promise of a more pragmatic American policy coupled with the incentives package the Europeans are set to deliver to Iran perhaps as early as next week could also be seen by parts of the Iranian regime as a rare opportunity to break the diplomatic impasse.

Mark Fitzpatrick, non-proliferation expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Bush administration was in a “win-win” situation. “It keeps the Chinese and Russians in the consensus and if Iran responds positively it could be the way forward [to a diplomatic solution],” he said.

At a time of intense debate in Tehran over the merits of dialogue with the “Great Satan”, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and ultimate decision-maker, now faces pressure from international foes and friends to respond with his own concessions.

Radical and more pragmatic factions in the Iranian regime agree that Iran must be allowed to continue with a small enrichment programme. But some conservative voices in recent weeks have warned against continuing with a confrontational approach to achieve this.

One option available for Iran is to take a brief pause in uranium enrichment to allow multilateral talks to begin and then use the discussions to argue for a small, UN-monitored enrichment plant. The European proposal is said to insist on a full suspension of enrichment but to hold out the prospect of a future resumption of limited work if and when Iran reassures the world it has no intention of building atomic weapons.

Additional reporting by Negar Roshanzamir in Tehran