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(photo credit: AP)
The US decision to begin negotiations with Teheran is likely to come up during discussions later this week with visiting US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, with Israel expected to urge the US to set a short time limit for the talks.
On Friday, Zalman Shoval, a top foreign policy adviser in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's transition team, told a group of some 40 ambassadors that Netanyahu's position regarding US engagement with Iran was one of acquiescence, even though he held out little hope for success.
However, Shoval said, the feeling in the Netanyahu camp was that it was important for there to be a definite time limit, otherwise the Iranians would continue with their nuclear program, even as the talks continued.
Shoval said that while Israel was in favor of a short period, something along the line of two months, there were voices in the US advocating more time.
It would be a mistake if the talks were postponed until after June's elections in Iran, and then until a new government there was formed, because that would merely buy the Iranians that much more time, Shoval said.
Late last month senior members of Congress wrote US President Barack Obama urging that he adopt a deadline for engagement with Iran, and that he apply strong sanctions if the talks failed.
The lawmakers, who included House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-California), wrote that "engagement must be serious and credible, but it cannot be open-ended."
"We cannot allow Iran to use diplomatic discussions as a cover for continuing to work on its nuclear program. Iran must verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment program within at most a few months of the initiation of discussions," the letter stressed.
Berman, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in December, said the negotiations with the Iranians should last somewhere between eight to 12 weeks.
But US State Department officials are refusing to put a deadline on US attempts to negotiate, with one official telling the Post simply that "we are pursuing direct diplomacy at the moment."
The official added that "it remains a two-track approach," with sanctions being the second track, but that "we are focused on the engagement track for now."
Iran experts have said that the US administration is looking to seize the initiative and make sure that its efforts at engagement are seen as sincere not just by the Iranians, but also by the Europeans.
Since taking office, Obama has advocated talking to Iran and has stressed America's willingness to engage Teheran across a range of issues. In March he took the unprecedented step of videotaping a greeting for the Iranian New Year in which he pointedly spoke to "Iran's leaders" about the US being "committed to diplomacy" and "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."
The idea, analysts say, is that not only do such overtures present the maximum chance of encouraging Iran to sit down to serious negotiations, but also to win over Europeans and other members of the international community to the possibility of tougher action in the future. According to this logic, the Obama administration will be able to say that it made a serious effort at engagement, taking the initiative in reaching out to Teheran, and thereby paint the Islamic republic as the intransigent, confrontational party if it rejected the outstretched hand.
From this perspective, setting out in public a timeline for negotiations could limit the US administration's payoff: It could be seen as implying that Washington isn't serious about engagement, but only using it as a bargaining tactic, undercutting the amount of international support it would be able to gain through these outreach efforts. At worst, it could be interpreted as succumbing to Israeli demands that it only engage within a strict timeframe, regardless of US assessments that it has more time to try diplomacy than Jerusalem believes.
When asked about the United States' emerging Iran policy at a press briefing Monday, State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood stressed that the US was willing to meet with Iranian officials without the preconditions that the Bush administration had demanded.
"It's important to remind everyone that we are willing to engage Iran without preconditions. And we'll just see whether Iran is willing to take up that offer," Wood said, noting that there were aspects of the policy that were still being reviewed and that other types of meetings and efforts at engagement would likely be announced in the coming days.
Meanwhile, Iran's state television reported Monday that the country's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, welcomed nuclear negotiations with the US and other countries, saying in a telephone conversation with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana that the talks should be aimed at "constructive cooperation" between countries.
Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Teheran was open to talks - but only if they were based on respect for Iran's rights, suggesting the West should not try to force Teheran to stop uranium enrichment. Jalili's comments appeared to be more of a definitive answer, but he stressed that Iran would issue an official response to the invitation soon, the TV reported. He did not elaborate.
The US announced last week that it would join direct talks with Iran that Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia were seeking to convene.
Ahmadinejad said Thursday that Teheran would present a new proposal for negotiations, saying "conditions have changed" - an apparent reference to Obama's election and Iran's own progress in its nuclear program since previous talks were held last year. He didn't elaborate on the proposal.
Ahmadinejad announced on Saturday that Iran now controlled the entire cycle for producing nuclear fuel. But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced skepticism last week about Iran's new claims that it had made major progress in its nuclear program and tested more advanced equipment for enriching uranium.
"We don't know what to believe about the Iranian program. We've heard many different assessments and claims over a number of years," she said.
AP contributed to this report.