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Ahmadinejad's new cabinet: more conservative than ever

Former British ambassador to Iran suggests ways to negotiate over nuclear policy.

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Sir Richard says that he believes President Barack Obama will continue efforts to engage Iran, despite ongoing show trials of Ahmadinejad's political opponents and other efforts to squash domestic dissent.

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From 1993 to 1997, Sir Richard was consul-general in Jerusalem at a crucial period in Israeli-Palestinian talks, and then became ambassador to Libya as Britain resumed diplomatic relations with Tripoli after a 17-year lapse.

Since retiring from the British Foreign Service in 2006, Sir Richard has been an associate fellow at Chatham House, an influential London-based think-tank.

Resuming nuclear talks

Sir Richard expects Iran to resume talks with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany "once the political situation in Iran has settled down, and by the date suggested by the US and others – the third week of September."

He says that public disquiet in the West over the Iranian authorities' suppression of domestic dissent was unlikely to prevent the Obama administration from joining negotiations. "The president has made a commitment and repeated it. If Iran comes forward with a proposal for opening talks, then the US will respond," he notes.

Sir Richard recommends Iran and the US set aside for the moment the tough question of suspending Tehran's nuclear enrichment to focus on cooperating in areas of mutual interest, "for example over drug-smuggling in Afghanistan, or against Al Qaeda."

He also argues that both the Americans and the Iranians should drop their preconditions for talks. "The sort of text I have in mind," he says, "would be one in which the two agree to put all their disputes on the table but do not try to prenegotiate what the exact agenda or timing should be beyond the first round."

Sir Richard expresses skepticism over new sanctions against Iran, particularly a possible effort to restrict Iranian gasoline imports mooted by the US Congress.

The threat of sanctions should be kept in reserve by Western negotiators, he says, to be applied as appropriate, rather than required by legislators.

"The US/EU have to show some leadership," says Sir Richard. "They should explain to their publics that there is no better course for now, and insist that their governments are given a free hand over timing of new sanctions and are not tied down by congresses."