“The focus on their economy has become more acute, and that suggests that there may be increased interest in looking for a way out,” Ross said. On the other hand, “it doesn’t mean that diplomacy is guaranteed to produce an outcome that we want,” he said.
Administration officials have acknowledged raising the possibility of bilateral talks as a way of luring Iran back to the negotiating table. The offer was most recently made during informal contacts on the sidelines of U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York in September. Iranian diplomats at the time expressed interest in exploring the idea, according to U.S. and European officials familiar with the exchange.
The offer remains open, diplomats said, though no negotiations — formal or informal — have been held, or planned, so far. A State Department spokesman last week dismissed as “ridiculous” a published report that Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett was meeting privately with Iranians.
Mixed signals from Iran
Meanwhile, the signals from Iran have been mixed. In Tehran, where Obama’s reelection triggered speculation in state-run media about an imminent “grand bargain” to settle the nuclear dispute, prominent politicians and opinion leaders have wondered aloud about whether the moment had come for ending three decades of hostility with the United States.
“Some people in the system and administration are increasingly asking this question: Who has said — and why — should we so intractably insist on enmity with the U.S.,” Sadegh Zibakalam, a political analyst and professor at Tehran University, said in an interview Sunday. “It is possible that the idea that enmity with the U.S. is not in our interests is getting more weight and we see a move toward serious negotiations.”
Ahmadinejad is among several prominent Iranians who have spoken favorably in recent days about a possible deal with the United States. The Iranian president, during a visit last week to Indonesia, said his country’s nuclear program was now a “political” issue. He added, “The issue should be resolved in relations between Iran and the United States.”
Another senior official, Mohammed Javad Larijani, secretary of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights and brother of the country’s parliament speaker, suggested in a televised interview that it was in Iran’s interest to deal directly with Washington. “To protect the interests of our system, we would negotiate with the U.S. or anyone else even in the abyss of hell,” he said last week.
But other prominent officials remain adamantly opposed. Influential figures among Iran’s military and paramilitary organizations — such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia — have rejected the possibility of U.S. talks, as have a number of conservative clerics and religious leaders.
“We are not going to resume relationships with America unless the U.S. changes its behavior,” Brig. Gen. Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, the commander of the Basij, said at a news conference on Saturday in Tehran.
The last significant opportunity for a breakthrough in U.S.-
Iranian relations came in 2003, when Iranian leaders secretly reached out through intermediaries to members of the George W. Bush administration to discuss a possible “grand bargain.” The effort quickly collapsed.
Many Western analysts agree that circumstances are again favorable for a deal. Some say diplomacy should not be abandoned even if Iranian leaders do not immediately accede to deep cuts in the country’s nuclear program.
Negotiators should adopt a “realistic” approach, first seeking agreement on confidence-
building steps and transparency measures that create a framework for a larger deal, said Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst who is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.
“Difficult negotiations are rarely concluded in a matter of weeks,” he said.
Jason Rezaian in Tehran contributed to this report.