Iran Softens Tone, Declares Readiness To Resume Talks

By Craig Whitlock and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 12, 2007

MUNICH, Feb. 11 -- Facing the prospect of broader international sanctions, Iran's president and national security chief on Sunday offered to resume negotiations over their country's nuclear program and eased up on some of the contentious rhetoric of the past, including threats to destroy Israel.

In Munich, Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, briefly met with European diplomats for the first time since talks collapsed in September and said Iran was willing to return to formal discussions.

He also said his country had "no intention of aggression against any country," adding that Iran "posed no threat to Israel" in particular, despite past vows from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel "off the map."

Meanwhile in Tehran, Ahmadinejad also said that Iran was willing to resume negotiations, although both he and Larijani rejected a condition for talks set by the U.N. Security Council that Iran first freeze its uranium enrichment program. "We are prepared for dialogue but won't suspend our activities," Ahmadinejad said.

In an address commemorating the 28th anniversary of the Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran, Ahmadinejad said his government had made recent progress in its nuclear development but did not give specifics. Some diplomats and analysts had expected him to announce that Iran had made a breakthrough in its efforts to enrich uranium.

U.S. and European officials expressed doubt about the sincerity of Iran's stated willingness to talk. "Offering to negotiate but saying suspension's off the table raises a real question about the sincerity of what he said," U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt told reporters in Germany after Larijani's appearance at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, an annual gathering of top defense officials and diplomats from around the world.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said it would be "unacceptable" to hold negotiations unless Iran first agrees to freeze its nuclear activities. "We have to be exceedingly clear and very rigorous on this proposition," he said.

Larijani met briefly in Munich with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief. Although no breakthroughs were reported, it was the first time the two sides had met since talks between Iran and European diplomats broke off last fall over Iran's refusal to end its uranium enrichment program.

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes, but U.S. and European officials say Tehran is pushing to develop atomic weapons in violation of international treaties.

On Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency suspended some technical aid to Iran, which is under a Feb. 21 deadline from the Security Council to stop enriching uranium or face more international sanctions.

With the deadline looming, Iranian officials have sounded less strident of late. Although Ahmadinejad has garnered worldwide headlines for threatening to destroy Israel and for calling the Holocaust a "myth," diplomats and analysts said he has lost domestic political support in recent months and is under pressure to moderate his tone and positions.

In Munich, where Hitler and the Nazis first tasted power, Larijani tried to sidestep questions about his government's views on the Holocaust, during which the Third Reich orchestrated the killing of an estimated 6 million Jews and about 5 million other Europeans. It is a crime in Germany to deny that the Holocaust happened.

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