Iran, U.S. leaning toward talks?

Recent events suggest both Tehran and Washington may be willing to engage in dialogue.

Susan Walsh/AP
Diplomacy: Gen. David Petraeus testified May 22 before the Senate Armed Services committee. If he takes over Central Command, he would have greater say in Iran policy.

The United States and Iran may be sworn enemies, but both Washington and Tehran have recently put out feelers suggesting that talks rather than confrontation may top each side's agenda.

Last week, Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that as commander of US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, he would recommend a comprehensive approach to Iran that would "engage by use of the whole of government" the regime in Tehran.

General Petraeus, who is President Bush's nominee to head US Central Command – a strategically crucial swath stretching from the Middle East and across Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan to Pakistan – aired his preference for diplomacy at the same time that Iran proposed a wide-ranging dialogue with the international community.

In a mid-May letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki proposed a wide-ranging package of issues for discussion with the UN Security Council, including Iran's nuclear program, and said Iran is prepared to seek "real and serious cooperation among the concerned parties."

Some Western officials dismissed the letter as grandstanding and "clever maneuvering" before the Security Council and Germany, known as the P5+1 Group, submits a new incentives package to Tehran to give up uranium enrichment. Uranium is used in nuclear energy production and can be diverted to create the fuel needed for a nuclear weapon.

Reactions to the proposal surfaced even as the UN nuclear watchdog organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, was expected to report Monday that Iran continues to drag its feet on providing access to records concerning past nuclear activity, especially on weaponization.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last Thursday that such a finding by the IAEA would gut Iran's claim that it has been fully transparent with the UN agency. "If Iran has peaceful intent as they say, they should have no problem with the IAEA" having total access, she said.

But some analysts say the Iranian initiative could potentially serve as an opening for addressing not just the nuclear issue but also other regional issues. For Washington, these would include Iran's involvement in Iraq and its support of militant Islamic groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

"It should be taken seriously, there's nothing to lose," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. Mr. Albright, whose organization's website published the Iranian letter, says that while the proposal offers nothing new on the nuclear front, it suggests the Iranians are "truly interested this time," in negotiations.

The calls for diplomacy come amid other signs that the issue of Iran is on Washington's front foreign policy burner.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee that a resurgence of "hard-line views" under Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made dialogue difficult. But the goal, he added, should be to use a variety of tools, from diplomacy to economic and military "pressures," to convince Tehran that talks with the US are in its interest.

In the Middle East earlier this month, Mr. Bush warned against "appeasement" in dealing with Tehran – interpreted by some as a swipe at Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, who has said that as president he would be open to talks with President Ahmadinejad.

But last week, the White House dismissed as "not worth the paper it's written on" an Israeli press report that said discussions during Bush's Israel stop suggests he favors military action against Iran.

That report was published amid growing speculation that Israel is pressing Washington for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites before Bush's term ends. Albright of ISIS says he heard Petraeus's Senate comments as part of an effort to "calm things down a little bit."

The sometimes grudging acknowledgement of the potential usefulness of talks with Iran reflects a recognition of its growing influence in the Middle East, some analysts say, especially since the toppling of its arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein. The triumph of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon's government pact last week is the latest example, experts say.

Tehran is making a "preemptive move" by sending its dialogue proposal to the UN before the P5+1 Group submits its latest incentives package to Tehran, says Bahman Baktiari, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine in Bangor.

It is also a sign, he adds, that Iran's leaders are more unified now on dealing with the international community on the nuclear issue. Professor Baktiari, originally from Iran, says the letter – and especially the fact it was penned by Foreign Minister Mottaki, who was previously "pushed aside by Ahmanidejad" – reflects the rise of "pragmatic conservatives" in Iran's domestic politics who favor "at least considering proposals from the West."

The dialogue proposal also reflects the Iranians' recognition, he adds, that they need to keep Russia and China on their side. "[The Iranians] see the Security Council as the tool of the US," he says, "so of course they prefer to see it divided."

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