Sunday, September 13, 2009

U.S. to Accept Iran's Proposal to Hold Face-to-Face Talks

September 12, 2009

U.S. to Accept Iran’s Proposal to Hold Face-to-Face Talks


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Friday that the United States would accept Iran’s offer to meet, fulfilling President Obama’s pledge to hold unconditional talks despite the Iranian government’s insistence that it would not negotiate over the future of its nuclear program.

The decision to engage directly with Iran would put a senior representative of the Obama administration at the bargaining table, along with emissaries from five other nations, for the first time since Mr. Obama took office.

The decision is bound to raise protests from conservatives who contend that unconditional talks are naïve, and from human rights groups that say the United States should not legitimize an Iranian government that appears to have manipulated its presidential election in June and crushed protests after the vote.

In advance of Friday’s announcement, senior administration officials said that their offer to negotiate directly with the Iranians, for what could turn into the first substantive talks since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, was, as a senior official had earlier put it, a “bona fide offer.”

But at the same time, officials said their expectations were extremely low. They also said their willingness to proceed was based in part on a recognition that some form of talks had to take place before the United States could make a case for imposing far stronger sanctions on Iran.

“We’ll be looking to see if they are willing to engage seriously on these issues,” said a State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley. “If we have talks, we will plan to bring up the nuclear issue.”

The talks would also include Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, which in the past have negotiated with Iran without the presence of an American representative, except for one meeting at the end of the administration of President George W. Bush.

During his first term, talks with unfriendly countries like North Korea and Iran were usually rejected out of hand in the hope of speeding their collapse. That loosened in Mr. Bush’s second term, but even then agreements to talk were usually under highly restricted conditions.

The result was a stalemate — one that Mr. Obama argued during last year’s presidential campaign was a huge mistake, in part because Iran was producing nuclear material while the standoff dragged on.

The United Nations Security Council has issued several rounds of sanctions against Iran for failing to comply with resolutions demanding it stop enriching uranium. It has called on Tehran to answer questions from international arms inspectors about documents that suggest that the country worked in the past on a nuclear weapons design.

Iran’s government insists that its efforts are aimed at the peaceful generation of electricity, and has charged that the documents were Western forgeries.

Iran made its offer to meet in a five-page letter delivered to several nations on Wednesday. Titled “Cooperation, Peace and Justice,” it touched on political, social and economic themes, called for reform of the United Nations and a Middle East peace settlement, and for universal nuclear disarmament.

But the letter said nothing about Iran’s nuclear program, and as recently as this week President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed never to halt the fuel production, saying Iran would not relinquish its fundamental rights.

Administration officials were dismissive of the letter, saying that it rehashed past statements and offers. But they said they would consider the offer to meet, and they spent less than 48 hours studying its contents before deciding to tell Iran that the United States would join its negotiating partners in talks.

It is unclear where the discussions will take place, but the most likely American representative is William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, who is leading the diplomatic effort.

The first announcement of the decision was made Friday in Brussels by Javier Solana, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, who acts as an intermediary for the six countries.

Hours earlier, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, appeared to take a softer line on Iran, saying the administration would not impose “artificial deadlines” on Iran.

It was difficult to judge Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran because, she said, “the elections and their aftermath have added a layer of complexity to assessing the overtures and offers of diplomatic engagement.”

Some administration officials argued that Mr. Obama’s overtures, which included a videotaped New Year’s greeting and at least one letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, had thrown the Iranian leadership off balance. They thought that for the first time in recent history, the United States had Iran on the defensive, rather than the other way around.

Russia and China have expressed deep reservations about imposing additional sanctions on Iran. On Thursday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, expressed opposition to additional sanctions.

On Friday, Mr. Crowley also said the United States would be willing to hold direct talks with North Korea over its nuclear program, within the context of existing six-party negotiations.

“We are prepared to meet with North Korea,” he said. “When it’ll happen, where it’ll happen, we’ll have to wait and see.”

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