Iran hints at nuclear talk progress, but world still wary of possible conflict

Optimistic comments from the Iranian foreign minister suggest that an accord with West may yet be reached.

Reuters reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in New York for a meeting at the UN, told reporters Wednesday that he did not think Israel or the United States would attack Iran before next January, when President Bush leaves office, and added that he saw a "new sort of atmosphere" in talks with the West over Iran's nuclear program.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Mottaki told reporters that "constructive statements and approaches" and an earlier proposal by Iran had "paved the way for creating a new sort of atmosphere."
On behalf of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana handed over an offer on June 14 of trade and other benefits designed to help persuade Tehran to curb its nuclear work.
"Very soon I will respond to the letter given to me by the six foreign ministers," Mottaki said at the United Nations.

CNN reports that Mottaki also suggested that Iran would be willing to open diplomatic contacts with the US. CNN notes that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has approved preliminary examination of opening an "interests office" in a third-party foreign embassy in Tehran. Such an office would open diplomatic channels with Iran in the absence of a US embassy.

"Contacts between Iranians and the American people will be a useful step for better understanding of the two nations," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. ...
Rice said recently that the United States has for some time been attempting to reach out to the Iranian people.

"We want more Iranians visiting the United States," she said. "We want the efforts that we've engaged in to have Iranian artists in the United States, American sports people in Iran. We're determined to find ways to reach out to the Iranian people."

Mottaki, in New York to attend a meeting of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, said Iran supports academic and sports exchanges between the two countries, IRNA reported.
"Iranian academics and students have invited their American counterparts to the country to share their research and scientific achievements," Mottaki said, according to IRNA.

The more upbeat diplomatic overtures from Tehran come as both President Bush and the Pentagon expressed interest in avoiding armed conflict with Iran. The Los Angeles Times reports that when asked at a White House press conference Wednesday whether he would try to discourage Israel from a rumored preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, Bush said that "the first option ought to be to solve this problem diplomatically." Shortly after Bush's press conference, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, who recently returned from a meeting with Israeli military leaders, told reporters at the Pentagon that an attack on Iran by Israel would have very negative consequences for the US.

"Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful for us," [Admiral Mullen] said, referring to the prospect of a direct clash with Iran while fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable."
In his trip to Israel, Mullen met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of the Israeli defense staff. Mullen declined to say whether an air strike was broached in his meetings but acknowledged that the Iranian threat was discussed and said he agreed that Tehran was a destabilizing force in the region.
Mullen has expressed his concerns for several months about the risks posed to U.S. troops in Iraq by a strike on Iran, Defense Department officials said, but those warnings have been made mostly in private. Mullen declined to say whether he had delivered his assessment to the White House in recent days.

The comments from both Iranian and US officials Wednesday follow heated rhetoric from both sides. Agence France-Presse reports that earlier this week, Iran threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, choking the world's oil supply, should any attack be made against it. But Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the US 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, said that the US "will not allow Iran to close" the Strait and would regard such an attempt to be an act of war. The Associated Press reports that if Iran were attacked, OPEC Secretary General Abdallah el-Badri said the price of oil would likely surpass $145 per barrel, since "it is difficult to replace [the] 4.1 or 4.2 million barrels a day" that Iran produces.

This week also saw the release of a New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh that warned the US may be preparing to invade Iran by increasing covert operations within the country. Mr. Hersh wrote that at Bush's request, Congress approved a $400 million funding increase of such operations, which "are designed to destabilize the country's religious leadership" and "involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations" as well as further intelligence gathering on Iran's nuclear activities. Agence France-Presse reports that the White House declined to comment on Hersh's report.

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