More hints of an opening for direct U.S.-Iran talks

October 31, 2012

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to supporters. (AFP/Getty)

The Iranian government has reportedly appointed one of its diplomats "to be the channel for all approaches from the Americans," according to Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor. She also quotes a veteran U.S. diplomat with knowledge of the appointment as saying that he doesn't think there are firm plans for direct U.S.-Iran talks.

Iran's appointment of a diplomat would be the latest in a series of noteworthy, though sometimes contradictory, hints that Iran and the United States might be signaling their openness to direct talks over Iran's nuclear program. Here's Rozen, with my emphasis:

The [Iranian] channel is for non-official U.S. contacts, which in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, have formed an important, if not unproblematic, part of Iran’s diplomatic scouting and Washington’s and Tehran’s imperfect efforts to understand and influence each other’s policy positions.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday, adding that he now doubts that there are agreed plans for direct US-Iran talks after the elections.

“I was told … that Iran had appointed one person to be the channel for all approaches from the Americans,” specifically for former officials and non-governmental experts, Fitzpatrick continued. “And Iran wants to structure that so that Iran is speaking from one voice.”

There have been other signals, though contradictory ones. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to direct talks after the presidential election. That story provoked wide discussion among Iran-watchers, who variously doubted and supported the report. Its original sources appear to have been Iranian, which is interesting as Iran has long rebuffed U.S. interest in direct talks.

Last week, Iran's foreign minister announced that the country would be willing to resume the stalled negotiations with the "P5+1," a group that represents the five members of the United Nations Security Council (including the United States) plus Germany. The Guardian had earlier reported that the P5+1 powers were pushing to resume talks.

It's difficult to know from these reports what's actually happening behind the scenes, and what U.S. and Iranian leaders intend, because the reports all offer conflicting narratives. But it's difficult to miss one largely consistent element, which is that they portray both the United States and Iran as open to seizing this moment and negotiating directly.

Of course, this wouldn't be Iran without something to completely contradict and undermine any reading of events there. Earlier Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a group of students that Washington is the most hated government in the world and that "the U.S. presidential candidates compete with each other in their debates to show their devotion to the Zionists and have made their nation their slave." Doesn't sound like a guy ready to make friends.

Meanwhile, Iranian energy exports are in freefall.

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Max Fisher | October 31, 2012