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ANALYSIS

Iran's Conflicting Signals to the West

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For the second day in a row, Iranian state television is reporting the Middle Eastern country has carried out long and medium range missile tests. Thursday's report says the missiles have "special capabilities" but did not elaborate. Video by AP

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 2008

Last week, various Iranian officials made positive comments about a new diplomatic outreach by the United States and its allies, suggesting negotiations on Iran's nuclear program might be possible. This week, Iran test-fired medium-range and long-range missiles, bluntly warning that thousands more were ready to be launched.

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The conflicting signals are typical of the opaque Islamic republic, with its many competing power centers and complex system of government. But demonstrating strength before negotiations also is a long-tested diplomatic formula, suggesting the missile launches and harsh rhetoric could be a sign that Iran is suddenly open to bargaining.

"The Iranian calculation is they need a show of strength," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle East studies at Syracuse University's Maxwell School. "They are ready for diplomacy and willing to talk, but they are also saying you can't treat us like a weak, third-tier state."

Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross said the varying messages may reflect "both sides of the Iranian leadership," but they also send a single message: "It makes no sense to attack us -- we can talk and we can also make things really horrible."

There were conflicting reports yesterday on whether Iran had conducted a second round of missile tests earlier in the day, following an initial set on Wednesday. Farsnews, a news agency with ties to the state, reported that several ground-to-air missiles, as well as a torpedo that "is the fastest in the world" had been test-fired. But Pentagon and intelligence officials said reports of two rounds of tests were incorrect, because eight missiles were fired on the same day, within hours of one another. Iranian media said nine missiles were launched Wednesday, while other reports said as few as seven or as many as 10 missiles were launched.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said yesterday that the exercise was "a natural reaction against maneuvers and serial threats of the Zionist regime," an apparent reference to Israel's military exercises last month. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking from the Republic of Georgia, said that "we are also sending a message to Iran. We will defend American interests and the interests of our allies."

Nevertheless, after years of stalemate, the timing may be right for Tehran to begin negotiations on its nuclear program. Bouyed by record-high oil prices, Iran has been able to withstand sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council for Tehran's unwillingness to suspend uranium enrichment. But the sanctions are beginning to have an impact. The European Union imposed sanctions last month on Iran's largest bank, while French energy giant Total SA yesterday pulled out of talks to develop a liquefied natural gas project in Iran, saying it was too risky to invest there.

In a sign of internal tensions, the foreign policy adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned in a newspaper interview last week against "provocative" statements on the nuclear impasse -- statements often associated with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Without mentioning the president by name, Ali Akbar Velayati said officials should avoid "illogical declarations and slogans" that undermine relations with the world.

Meanwhile, the group of six nations seeking to negotiate with Iran -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- have sweetened the terms of their offer to broaden economic and political ties if Iran halts its nuclear program. While little attention was paid to Iran's security needs in the original offer two years ago, the new one spoke of respecting "territorial integrity" and encouraging "direct contact and dialogue" with Iran -- and said the nations were committed to "support Iran in playing an important and constructive role in international affairs."

Thomas Fingar, head of the National Intelligence Council, said Wednesday at the Center for National Policy that Iran "has reason to feel insecure" because it "lives in a tough neighborhood." He added that "recognizing that Iran has real security needs is a useful starting point. . . . We are part of the reason why Iran feels insecure, rightly or wrongly."

The countries have even pulled back slightly from their demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment ahead of negotiations. They have offered a "freeze for freeze," meaning that discussions could begin as long as the allies halt efforts to increase sanctions and Iran does not expand its nuclear program. The talks would initially last six weeks, though formal negotiations still could not begin until Iran suspends enrichment, as demanded in Security Council resolutions. Undersecretary of State William J. Burns described the concept Wednesday as "a step that's designed to get to negotiations."

Last weekend, Iran gave a formal response to the offer that U.S. and European officials described as oblique. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana hopes to meet with Iranian officials next week to seek greater clarity.

Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink in Ramsar, Iran, and staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.


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