Western powers want to start Iran talks

Iran dominates diplomatic talks ahead of UN Assembly; Israeli official: Russia is wrench in works.

Mottaki proposals 248.88 (photo credit: )
Mottaki proposals 248.88
(photo credit: )
Israeli officials expressed concern over the weekend at the willingness of Western states, particularly the United States, to begin a dialogue with Iran despite Teheran's refusal to negotiate over its nuclear program. Iran could be dissuaded from its nuclear course, but the time constraints were severe, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, who is a member of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's inner cabinet, said on Friday. "If there is enough political and economic action put together, there is a good chance that Iran will listen to reason. I don't think they are irrational," Meridor said. But, he cautioned, the Islamic republic was already "not very far away" from being able to construct nuclear weapons. Meridor's comments followed Friday's announcement that the "P-5+1" - the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - had accepted Iran's offer on Wednesday to hold talks. The decision was announced in Brussels by Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief who has served as an intermediary between Teheran and the six powers. The decision to pursue dialogue came despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement earlier in the week that his country would neither halt uranium enrichment nor negotiate over its nuclear rights. Teheran was only prepared to talk about "global challenges," he said. A hint of a thaw, however, came on Friday from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who said he welcomed talks with the United States and its partners, and that "should conditions be ripe, there is a possibility of talks about the nuclear issue." On Wednesday, Iran submitted a proposal for international talks that sidestepped the nuclear issue. It announced it was ready to "embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations," but ignored the demand of the six powers for a freeze of its uranium enrichment. "Clearly, the Iranian paper does not reply to these concerns. It does not cover the nuclear issue. That's precisely why we think we need an early meeting," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Friday. "We'll be looking to see if they are willing to engage seriously." Until now, the US has not participated in the outreach to Iran, which was largely spearheaded by Solana, except for one meeting late in president George W. Bush's term that included Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns. Burns has continued in that role under Obama and could again find himself the American representative in the room. The diplomatic back-and-forth comes ahead of a looming September 24 deadline for Teheran to respond to Washington's offer for direct engagement on its nuclear program. Following Iran's contested presidential election and its violent aftermath, as well as a lack of Iran response to the American invitation, US officials have begun to look toward implementing increased sanctions by the end of the year. But Russia, a key country for sanctions to be effective, this week publicly expressed skepticism about the need to impose such measures, pointing to the Iranian letter as worthy of exploration. Indeed, a senior Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday that Jerusalem was concerned that Russia was playing the role of "the wrench in the works" when it came to international pressure on Iran. "All the other nations are roughly on the same page. China seems to be taking its cue from Russia. It's Russia that's saying this [Iranian proposal] is something we can work with," said the official. Some observers suggested the US decision to take up Iran on the talks at this point was made to stave off accusations that it had refused opportunities for dialogue if it moves to pushing for harsher sanctions. Still, Crowley said on Friday, "We're not interested in talking for talking's sake." He also pointed out that the US was continuing "to look for ways to pressure Iran to change the path that it's on" even as it engages. "But ultimately, because these are serious issues, we feel the only way you're ultimately going to resolve these issues is through direct dialogue," he said. Also Saturday, France said it was skeptical but wanted to launch a dialogue process as soon as possible. A French Foreign Ministry statement said that the first meeting between the P-5+1 "must take place before the UN General Assembly," which will open on Tuesday in New York. Teheran's proposal "does not constitute an answer to the [international] offer of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, the very issue that is the main source of concern for the international community and which we are interested in discussing with the Iranians," the French statement said. For its part, the US said it was willing to hold negotiations, and "to address any other issues that [the Iranians] want to bring to the table, but, clearly, if Iran refuses to negotiate seriously, we - the United States and the international community and the Security Council - can draw conclusions from that," in the words of the State Department's Crowley. "And then based on that, we'll make some judgments in the future," he added. The Obama administration will likely raise other issues with Iran, including cooperation in stabilizing two of its neighbors - Afghanistan and Iraq - where the US has troops, as well as alleged Iranian support for terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. AP contributed to this report.