Iran keeps door open to nuclear talks

This weekend, President Ahmadinejad indicated he wanted to negotiate, but 'without preconditions.'

Speaking to the ideological faithful at the gilt shrine dedicated to Iran's top revolutionary icon, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the weekend softened Iran's stance toward nuclear talks with the West and the United States, saying a deal may be possible.

The arch-conservative Iranian president spoke after receiving a call from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who urged Mr. Ahmadinejad not to dismiss unseen incentives from Western powers to limit his country's nuclear programs.

The proposal with those incentives - and a host of likely penalties if Iran resists - is to be hand-delivered to Tehran this week.

In a major policy shift, the US has said it will join European talks with Iran if the Islamic Republic resuspends uranium enrichment, which was restarted last August after a two-year hiatus during negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany. It would be the first such public contact by the US after more than a quarter-century of hostility.

Ahmadinejad also appears to be keeping the door open for a deal. "We won't make any prejudgment about the proposal to be presented to us.... We won't be in haste to judge it," Ahmadinejad told Iranians gathered to mark the 17th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. "We are after negotiations, but fair and just negotiations. They must be without any preconditions."

But Ahmadinejad's comments were tempered by a tough warning from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said that a "wrong move" by the US - such as a military strike - could disrupt energy supplies from the Gulf region.

Both the US and Iran have long battered each other with uncompromising rhetoric. But a series of recent signals by clerical leaders that Tehran is ready to talk is coinciding with a growing realization in Washington that military options and "regime change" are risky and that no solution to the standoff is possible without direct US engagement.

"[Iranian officials] are looking for a kind of face-saving," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Alameh University in Tehran. "They think they should not be portrayed as defeated."

State TV reported that Ahmadinejad told Mr. Annan that Iran would not bow to "threats," or give up its "absolute rights," as codified in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to enrich uranium for energy production.

Outlining the new US position on direct talks last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged Iran's right to nuclear power. Under dispute is Iran's strategic aim: Tehran insists it only wants atomic energy; the US and some Western nations claim Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Though the permanent five UN Security Council members, plus Germany - which put forward the incentive package announced late Thursday - demand that Iran give up any enrichment in Iran, Mr. Bavand says an exhaustively verified middle way could be found.

Iran says it must be allowed to "continue" uranium enrichment in Iran at low levels. But conditions are already in place that could translate into meeting conditions for talks: After a surge in enrichment activity that lead to April announcements by Tehran that it had "mastered" the technical process, problems have slowed progress.

"De facto suspension may become de jure suspension - I think that's a possibility," says Mr. Bavand. "From a technical standpoint, when facing problems, would you rather suspend as a matter of dealing a concession to the Western powers, with the intent of [finding] a solution?"

Reflecting the nationalist vigor that accompanies the issue in Iran, Ahmadinejad already speaks as though Iran is a full member of the nuclear club.

Last Thursday, the president accused "our enemies" - standard shorthand for the US and Israel - of trying to sow discord among Iran's ethnic minorities that has grown since last summer. In the northwest city of Tabriz and other population centers, growing unrest among ethnic Azeris erupted into serious demonstrations when a state-owned newspaper ran a cartoon that portrayed an ethnic Azeri as a cockroach. In a sign of regime concern, the paper was quickly shut down and the editor and cartoonist were arrested.

"Without achievement of peaceful nuclear technology, the world equation has changed and our country has become an influential power," said Ahmadinejad. "Today the Iranian people, with full awareness, will destroy the enemy plots aimed at spreading differences among them."

The president's ability to speak in such terms is one reason that Iran has pursued nuclear prowess, analysts say. "It gives a kind of satisfaction, to the egocentrism of the ... state, and for internal consumption as well," says Bavand. Iran's limited success in building its nuclear program has already become a rhetorical tool, adds Bavand: "As far as technical development, we have reached the point where we have entered the exclusive nuclear club."

On Sunday, Khamenei reinforced Iran's commitment to home-grown nuclear power. "We have achieved a lot of scientific goals, and this is a resource that our late imam [Khomeini] had saved for us," he said. "This is a historic investment. It represents our political independence and national self-confidence ... and we should not sell out this precious resource because of the enemies' threats and we should not be fooled by enemy bribes."

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