Iran Requests Direct Talks on Nuclear Program

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By Karl Vick and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

TEHRAN, May 23 -- Iran has followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent letter to President Bush with explicit requests for direct talks on its nuclear program, according to U.S. officials, Iranian analysts and foreign diplomats.

The eagerness for talks demonstrates a profound change in Iran's political orthodoxy, emphatically erasing a taboo against contact with Washington that has both defined and confined Tehran's public foreign policy for more than a quarter-century, they said.

Though the Tehran government in the past has routinely jailed its citizens on charges of contact with the country it calls the "Great Satan," Ahmadinejad's May 8 letter was implicitly endorsed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and lavished with praise by perhaps the most conservative ayatollah in the theocratic government.

"You know, two months ago nobody would believe that Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad together would be trying to get George W. Bush to begin negotiations," said Saeed Laylaz, a former government official and prominent analyst in Tehran. "This is a sign of changing strategy. They realize the situation is dangerous and they should not waste time, that they should reach out."

Laylaz and several diplomats said senior Iranian officials have asked a multitude of intermediaries to pass word to Washington making clear their appetite for direct talks. He said Ali Larijani, chairman of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, passed that message to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who arrived in Washington Tuesday for talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

Iranian officials made similar requests through Indonesia, Kuwait and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Laylaz said. American intelligence analysts also say Larijani's urgent requests for meetings with senior officials in France and Germany appear to be part of a bid for dialogue with Washington.

"They've been desperate to do it," said a European diplomat in Tehran.

U.S. intelligence analysts have assessed the letter as a major overture, an appraisal shared by analysts and foreign diplomats resident in Iran. Bush administration officials, however, have dismissed the proposed opening as a tactical move.

The administration repeatedly has rejected talks, saying Iran must negotiate with the three European powers that have led nuclear diplomacy since the Iranian nuclear program became public in 2002. Within hours of receiving Ahmadinejad's letter, Rice dismissed it as containing nothing new.

But U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said government experts have exerted mounting pressure on the Bush administration to reply to the letter, seconding public urgings from commentators and former officials. "The content was wacky and, from an American point of view, offensive. But why should we cede the high moral ground, and why shouldn't we at least respond to the Iranian people?" said an official who has been pushing for a public response.

Analysts, including American specialists on Iran, emphasized that the contents of the letter are less significant than its return address. No other Iranian president had attempted direct contact with his U.S. counterpart since the countries broke off diplomatic relations after student militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Iranian analysts said Ahmadinejad's familiar list of grievances on Iraq, Israel and terrorism was designed largely for domestic consumption. CIA analysts and experts on Iran within the government said it also could be interpreted as an attempt to articulate points for possible discussion with Washington.


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