Iran Expresses Guarded Optimism on Proposal

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 8, 2006

TEHRAN, June 7 -- Iran continued to express guarded optimism Wednesday that a package of incentives from the United States and other major powers would lead to a negotiated resolution to the controversy over its nuclear program.

"We do not predict a difficult situation for the country," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in remarks quoted by the government news agency IRNA one day after the European Union's top diplomat outlined the proposal for senior officials here.

"Shuttle diplomacy, if it is in good faith, will allow us to find grounds for understanding," Mottaki said.

The statement, from a figure associated with the hard-line conservatives in Iran's government who are expected to be most skeptical toward compromise, reflected the afterglow of Tuesday's formal presentation, which was carefully calibrated to boost the prospects for Iranian acceptance. The package, endorsed a week ago by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany, includes both incentives for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and resume formal negotiations, and specific penalties if it does not.

But in his two-hour presentation to Iranian officials on Tuesday, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana described only the incentives in detail. When it came to possible penalties, according to a European diplomat present during the presentation, "he just mentioned there would also be a price to be paid if we didn't find agreement. But he didn't go into details."

The strategy was fashioned to deny skeptics within Iran's theocratic government the opportunity to define the overture as essentially a threat by emphasizing its coercive elements. Analysts and diplomats said that risk was substantial given the Iranian reaction to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's announcement that Washington would join direct talks if Iran agreed to suspend enrichment.

The overture promised to shatter nearly 27 years of official estrangement, something Iran had actively solicited in the preceding weeks. But after Rice's presentation, Iranian officials and state-owned media seized on her starker references, including descriptions of the Iranian government as a "regime" and a warning of the "great costs" it would incur if it refused to suspend.

"The language was not very polite," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University.

Hadian-Jazy said Solana's presentation appeared to give the initiative a fresh start in Iran, one helped along by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's weekend call to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The European diplomat described the atmosphere in the Solana meeting as "excellent. There's an openness on both sides."

Iran is expected to take several weeks to evaluate the proposal. Solana said he expects to have at least one more meeting with Iranian officials.

"There's going to be hard negotiations behind the scenes -- on both sides," Hadian-Jazy said. "Iran will try to preserve at least one of the enrichment cascades that's already spinning in Iran. The West will ask for the zero option."

At the same time, a parallel debate will rage among Iran's ruling elite. Often portrayed as turbaned and monolithic, the establishment here includes a wide range of clerical, military and civilian power centers, all of which will be consulted by the small, shifting circle that will make the final decision.

And though Ahmadinejad has a flair for making headlines, analysts and diplomats pay closest attention to Ali Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, who on Tuesday called the talks "positive" but also spoke of "ambiguities that need to be addressed."

"What Larijani would say is the most important thing," said Hadian-Jazy, "because that will represent the consensus of all the faces within Iranian polity."

The final decision will be made by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate authority in Iran. By all accounts, he comes to the issue deeply skeptical that the Bush administration is sincere about even beginning to put aside years of mutual enmity.

"Yes, he has a deep mistrust," said the European diplomat. "But at least the ayatollahs in Washington have shown a little flexibility. It would be nice if those here would do the same."

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