Iranian President Warms to Dialogue

By Karl Vick and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 9, 2006

TEHRAN, June 8 -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday signaled Iran's readiness to renew negotiations "to resolve misunderstandings in the international arena."

"On behalf of the Iranian nation, I'm announcing that the Iranian nation will never hold negotiations about its definite rights with anybody, but we are for talks about mutual concerns," Ahmadinejad said in the city of Qazvin, to which the hard-line conservative traveled on the latest of his campaign-style trips outside Iran's capital.

The statement was the most straightforward indication so far of Iran's willingness to engage six world powers, including the United States, in discussions aimed at avoiding confrontation over its nuclear program. But he did not say whether Iran would agree to the only precondition set for the talks: that the country put its program on hold during negotiations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Thursday from Vienna that Iran had begun a new round of uranium enrichment this week, on the same day that Tehran received the U.S.-backed proposal for talks. Enrichment can produce fuel for power plants or, if concentrated further, make the core ingredient of a nuclear weapon.

During two years of on-and-off talks that Iran held with Britain, France and Germany until 2005, it often rushed to complete an element of its nuclear program on the eve of formal negotiating sessions. The tactic irked the Europeans and eroded trust on both sides until the talks collapsed last August.

Since then, Iran has made several technical advances. In April, Iranian officials announced progress toward industrial-level enrichment using a 164-centrifuge cascade, boasting that the achievement "changed the facts on the ground." But if Iran accepts the preconditions set by Washington and its allies, the new round of enrichment could be its last for some time.

Iran would also be expected to stop work on additional cascades, which the IAEA reported to be currently under construction.

The IAEA has been monitoring Iran's nuclear program while investigating the scale, scope and history of the country's 18-year effort to build a nuclear program in secret. The inspectors have not found proof of a weapons program but have been unable to rule one out, in part because of Iran's spotty cooperation. The IAEA complained in Thursday's report that Iran has failed to live up to promises to improve cooperation. In April, Iran agreed to provide the agency with a timetable for answering outstanding questions. "No such timetable has been received," the new report said.

The Bush administration and other governments call Iran's program a guise for producing weapons. Iran insists it aims only to produce electricity in line with its rights as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- the "definite right" that Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have stressed they will not give up in any new negotiations.

"We don't negotiate on the way we should live, on how we should walk and the way we must handle our economy," he said in remarks quoted by the state broadcasting service. "Be aware whether you negotiate or not, whether you frown at us or not and whether you stay beside us or turn your back on us, the Iranian nation will not retreat from its path of development and achievement of advanced technology."

The bellicose rhetoric was vintage Ahmadinejad, whose popularity with the Iranian public tends to be enhanced when he projects flinty independence from a disapproving West. But the language framed by the hard talk -- "misunderstandings" and "mutual concerns" -- appeared to signal that Iran was continuing to move toward talks.

The package of incentives was endorsed last week by the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, and presented to Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, on Tuesday. It includes the prospect of Washington putting aside 27 years of frozen relations to join the talks directly. Linzer reported from Washington.

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