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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Tehran Appears to Open Door For Direct Talks on Nuclear Aims

By JAY SOLOMON
June 5, 2006; Page A4

WASHINGTON — A series of relatively conciliatory statements by senior Iranian officials over the weekend is raising hopes that Tehran may be preparing to respond positively to a call by the U.S. for direct talks over its nuclear program.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his government would seriously study a package of incentives, expected to be delivered by European envoys, aimed at persuading Iran to scrap development of nuclear technologies. He said a “breakthrough” was possible on the nuclear question, provided Washington and world leaders respected Tehran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy and its role as a regional Middle East power.
 
“The Iranian nation’s right to nuclear technology and power is legal and definite, and we will not talk about these issues,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said Saturday. He added, however, that Iran was willing to discuss “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and how to stop it,” as well as peace and other “common concerns.”

The seemingly encouraging tone, however, was countered by other Iranian leaders. In a speech yesterday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed that Tehran maintained its right to develop nuclear power and threatened to cut off oil shipments to the West should Washington seek to attack Iran. His comments contradicted those made in recent months by senior members of Iran’s oil ministry to The Wall Street Journal that Iran would never use oil as a weapon.

“If you make any mistake [to punish or attack Iran], definitely shipments of energy from this region will be seriously jeopardized. You have to know this,” Mr. Khamenei said in a speech carried live on Iranian television.

Senior U.S. officials said the discord within Iran’s leadership was evidence of a regime seeking to placate international and domestic constituencies. They also said the State Department wasn’t particularly surprised by the conflicting responses, due to competing power interests inside Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad is a popularly elected figure, while Mr. Khamenei, as Iran’s Supreme Leader, was appointed by Iran’s clerical establishment. These U.S. diplomats said it is notable that Tehran isn’t dismissing direct talks. “They’re not saying ‘no,’ which is significant,” said a senior State Department official working on Iran.

High-level talks over the nuclear issue would break a nearly 30-year diplomatic chill between Iran and the U.S., which broke off diplomatic ties with Tehran in 1979 amid the Iranian hostage crisis. Since then, the two countries have held infrequent low-level contacts.
 
A European mission — headed by Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign-affairs chief — to meet with the Iranians is the next step, said U.S. officials. Mr. Solana’s trip is expected to occur in days, though the meeting site hasn’t been named. U.S. officials declined to reveal any inducements or coercive measures Mr. Solana may outline, saying such a public airing could spook Tehran.

Analysts following Iran said they expect Mr. Solana to offer many of the same incentives to Iran already extended by Britain, France, Germany and Russia in past discussions. These include international support for Iran’s development of proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors, access to external nuclear fuels, and further Western assistance in entering the World Trade Organization and other global economic bodies.

Should Iran fail to agree to curb its pursuit of certain nuclear technologies, however, Mr. Solana is expected to outline some sanctions it could face under the United Nations mandate. These include economic sanctions, as well as potential travel and financial restrictions on Iran’s political and business leaders.

U.S. officials said they are committed, though, not to allow Iran to perpetually stall in responding to the offer from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in recent days that Tehran has “weeks, rather than months” to respond. Some American diplomats are setting mid-July — when the leaders of the Group of Eight countries meet in Russia — as a deadline for Iran to indicate whether it is willing to cease uranium enrichment.

Should Iran refuse, however, many security analysts still question Washington’s ability to use coercive measures. China and Russia, key members of the Security Council, are still seen as wary of authorizing tough sanctions because of business and security ties with Iran.

Write to Jay Solomon at [email protected]

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