Iran Appears to Warm to Diplomacy

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

NEW YORK, July 1 -- Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Tuesday that prospects for a military attack by either the United States or Israel on the Islamic republic before the end of the Bush administration are "almost nil," and he dismissed a recent Israeli military exercise and warnings from Washington as "psychological warfare."

"Even at the peak of the psychological warfare, we were saying that we don't believe that this war will happen," Mottaki said. "It's one thing to say whether such an act is plausible, which we wouldn't negate. What we negate is the chance that such a desire to go to war will be met," in part because U.S. public opinion is opposed to another war.

In a long interview with American journalists, Iran's top diplomat also indicated a readiness to negotiate a U.S.-backed proposal to end the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. Iran is "seriously and carefully examining" it, Mottaki said.

"We believe that talks are a good foundation for continuing our conversation in this field. . . . We view the position taken by the five-plus-one as a constructive one," Mottaki said, referring to the offer made by the world's six major powers. After it was presented by European foreign policy chief Javier Solana, he added, "we saw the potential for the beginning for a new round of talks." Mottaki said he will write a formal response within the next "couple of weeks."

Diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany had not been optimistic that Iran would accept a reformulated package of political, economic and security incentives, designed to get it to suspend its uranium enrichment and begin a dialogue.

But Mottaki's remarks came on the same day that the senior foreign policy adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested in a newspaper interview that Iran may not reject the deal.

"Those who work against our interest want us to reject them. Therefore our interests lie in accepting them," Ali Veliyati, a former Iranian foreign minister, told the right-wing newspaper Jomhuri Islami.

Shaul Bakhash, an Iranian-born political scientist at George Mason University, said the pair of comments "suggest that the Iranian government is much more interested in finding a negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue."

Mottaki, who is here on United Nations business, refused to comment on whether Iran is sticking to its long-standing refusal to suspend uranium enrichment as a precondition for a new diplomatic dialogue.

In Iran last month, Solana proposed a "freeze-for-a freeze" for a short period, possibly six weeks, when Iran would suspend enrichment and the six powers would freeze further punitive action, according to a senior European official. If the freeze produced progress at talks, it could become a long-term suspension by both sides.

Iran had earlier dismissed that kind of proposal but did not at the talks with Solana, the European envoy said.

On the subject of Iraq, Mottaki said Iran believes the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will not accept the controversial status-of-forces agreement sought by Washington. "It is our understanding that Iraq will not sign it," he said.

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