Iran's Ahmadinejad, at UN, has much to say, but will there be talks?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the world stage again at the UN, says Iran is ready for a dialogue on its nuclear program, but Western powers say they have received no formal response from Iranian officials on when the talks would start.

Richard Drew/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the UN headquarters in New York, on Sept. 21.

With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his annual media blitz of New York, the question global powers have for him is: talks or no talks?

The blustery Mr. Ahmadinejad continues to insist, as he has this week in the margins of this year’s United Nations General Assembly meetings, that Iran is ready to return to dialogue with international leaders on its nuclear program.

But Western powers, which have queried the Iranians about a return to talks through the offices of the European Union (EU), say the only response they’ve had to their invitation is silence.

On Wednesday, foreign ministers of the UN’s five permanent Security Council members plus Germany – the group of countries that is seeking a negotiated solution to conflict over Iran’s advancing uranium enrichment program – held out hope for a return to talks this fall. But they could report no formal response from the Iranians on when the dialogue might resume.

“It shouldn’t be that hard to fix the date for a meeting,” said a senior Obama administration official who sat in on the ministers’ hour-long meeting. “We are committed to a diplomatic solution,” the official added, “it remains to be seen if the Iranians are.”

The two sides have been in a stand-off since October 2009, when the Iranian leadership balked at a nuclear fuel-swap deal their own negotiators had reached with the international representatives.

Westerns powers suspect Iran of pursuing uranium enrichment with the aim of producing a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its program has only peaceful designs.

The ministers, representing the group of countries known as the P5 plus 1 – the US, China, Russia, France, the UK, and Germany – decided to have the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, relaunch her effort from this summer to pin down the Iranians on their stated openness to resuming a dialogue. British officials in New York for the UN meetings are also expected to meet with the Iranian delegation and gauge the prospects for talks.

Without Iran’s clear willingness to restart talks, the sustained dialogue the international powers say they want with Iran seems all the more problematic. “The real proof will be in a renewed engagement, [with Iran] sitting down with the P5 plus 1 [and] seeing if we can’t tackle the significant differences between us,” the administration official said.

The lack of an official response from Iran has led to speculation that – Ahmadinejad’s repeated floating of an imminent return to talks to the contrary – the Iranian leadership is deeply divided over the desirability of dialogue. And opposition to talks, which some Iran experts say is led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has only hardened since the Security Council passed a new round of international sanctions in June targeting Iran’s energy sector and officials with the Revolutionary Guards.

Obama administration officials consider the sanctions – which have been reinforced by follow-up national sanctions from countries ranging from the US and the members of the European Union to Japan and Australia – a victory for President Obama’s dual-track approach for finding a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear challenge.

Iran experts differ over how much impact the sanctions are having, although some Iran watchers believe that for the moment the sanctions have prompted Iran to focus on finding economic alternatives and opening new trade links rather than on returning to talks.

Despite such speculation, Ahmadinejad appears set on using his time on the international stage this week to bolster an image of an Iran that wants dialogue and peaceful solutions to conflicts like the nuclear controversy. He told reporters Tuesday he sees a “good chance” that talks will resume soon, adding: “There is no other alternative.”

Ahmadinejad has seemed to thrive on his annual foray onto the international stage in New York, usually making outrageous statements (denying that the Holocaust occurred, denying the existence of homosexuality in Iran) that draw large protests outside the UN headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side.

This year he has so far created less of a stir – although he is not scheduled to deliver his speech to the UN General Assembly until Thursday. He did predict the imminent demise of Western capitalism in a short speech at the UN summit on global poverty-reduction goals, and called for the coming 10 years to be declared “the Decade of Joint Global Governance” in recognition of an international effort he proposes for replacing the reigning “undemocratic and unjust” international institutions.

Ahmadinejad was perhaps at his most controversial when he denied recent accusations of human-rights abuses in Iran, countering those charges with his own claim that Iran’s accusers simply don’t understand the Iranian justice system.

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