US will join talks with Iran

But the Oct. 1 meeting may simply set the stage for the US to seek tougher sanctions against Tehran for its nuclear program.

Vahid Salemi / AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to the media as he arrives for a press conference at the presidency in Tehran on Sept. 7. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran is ready for talks with world powers over its nuclear program.

The United States will join other world powers in talks with Iran on Oct. 1, putting President Obama's "engagement" policy to a major test.

Once Iran made its offer for talks last week, the US could hardly refuse to explore what Iran has in mind – especially given Mr. Obama's policy of giving diplomacy a chance. But with US officials holding out little hope for concessions from Iran on its nuclear program, the meeting may simply be setting the stage for the US to seek broader international cooperation on tougher sanctions against Tehran.

In any case, US officials insisted Monday that the door to engagement with Iran will not remain open long if Tehran sticks to its position that the talks take up everything but its nuclear program.

"It's incumbent upon us to do this, to take this opportunity," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly Monday. [But] we are under no illusions."

William Burns, undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, will represent the US at the meeting, which will probably take place somewhere in Europe. Mr. Burns has already represented the US at meetings on Iran that included the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany. Burns, Mr. Kelly suggested, has already been very clear with US partners that unfruitful talks – negotiations that don't quickly focus on Iran's nuclear program – can't go on long.

"Our patience isn't infinite. We're not willing to let this go on forever," said Kelly, noting that Obama has spoken of a "time period that ends this fall."

Obama originally spoke of giving Iran until the end of the year to open up on its nuclear program, which Western countries suspect is aimed at producing a nuclear weapon. It would also have to take steps guaranteeing against weaponization of what Iran insists is a peaceful nuclear energy program. But Obama shortened that horizon to the end of this month, under pressure from Congress and from Israel.

Iran's contested presidential elections in June and their violent aftermath also prompted Obama to toughen his Iran policy. The US signed on to international demands that Iran either respond positively to talks on its nuclear program by the time of the UN General Assembly and the Group of 20 meeting – both next week – or face a new round of sanctions.

Some Obama critics accuse the president of softening a deadline by agreeing to the Oct. 1 talks. But advocates of direct talks with Iran say the US is right to join them – and say the US should turn the tables on Iran's insistence that the talks cover a broad range of issues by putting the question of human rights front and center.

"Failing to raise human rights in the talks would send the Iranian government a dangerous message of international indifference to the plight of the Iranian people," the National Iranian American Council said in a statement Monday. The organization, which endorses Obama's call for engagement with Iran to resolve differences between the two countries, says Iran's "abysmal human rights record" is "no less pressing or important than its [uranium] enrichment program in rehabilitating [Iran] into a responsible and constructive actor in the global community."


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