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.
"There is an overreaction to the matter of the Holocaust," Larijani said. "It's a historical matter. I can't see why such sensitivities are being given to such a simple case."
Larijani also said Iran was a force for regional stability in the Middle East and had no designs on any of its neighbors, including Iraq and Israel. "We pose no threat, and if we are conducting nuclear research and development, we are no threat to Israel," he said.
Instead, Larijani blamed the United States for bringing chaos to the Middle East and South Asia, noting that it had invaded two of Iran's neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan. He echoed some of the criticism leveled a day earlier in Munich by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who harshly accused the United States of making the world more dangerous than at any point during the Cold War.
In his own speech at the Munich conference Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates used both humor and pointed remarks to parry Putin's speech. "One Cold War was quite enough," Gates told the audience of about 200 defense and foreign ministers and other officials from about two dozen countries.
Alluding to the fact that both he and Putin are former intelligence officials, Gates said, "I guess old spies have a habit of blunt speaking."
But he added, "I've been to reeducation camp" -- a reference to the four years he spent as president of Texas A&M University before becoming the Pentagon chief.
Gates, who has been defense secretary for just two months, noted that he has accepted an invitation from Putin to visit Russia.
Gates devoted most of his speech to urging NATO members to contribute to the force fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
"It is vitally important that the success Afghanistan has achieved not be allowed to slip away through neglect or lack of political will or resolve," Gates said.