U.S. and Iran Question Each Other's Seriousness as Nuclear Talks Approach

By Glenn Kessler and Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 21 -- Diplomats from the United States and Iran will cross paths this week at the U.N. General Assembly, but the gulf between the two nations is likely to be evident. Officials and analysts offer little hope that much will change by Oct. 1, when the countries will join other nations for talks on Tehran's nuclear program and international aspirations.

The two countries remain far apart on the substance and purpose of the upcoming negotiations, and President Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make dueling speeches on Wednesday. The same day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will hold high-level talks here with European, Russian and Chinese counterparts on how to approach the Oct. 1 talks, which are likely to be held in Turkey.

Both the United States and Iran have a firm eye on international opinion, with neither wanting to be seen as the reason for any failure in talks. So officials on both sides are adamantly saying that they are serious -- and that the other side needs to demonstrate its sincerity.

"We will make clear that if they are serious, we need to have more substantive engagement," said Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg. "This may be the beginning of something -- or it may not."

In Tehran, Kazem Jalali, a member of the Iranian parliament's commission on national security and foreign policy, made a similar point: "The Islamic Republic of Iran is really, really serious about these negotiations. We do not look at these negotiations as a tactic."

At the Oct. 1 meeting, a senior diplomat from the United States will join diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China in pressing Iran to agree to greater controls on its nuclear program. On the table are competing proposals: The six countries are offering economic and political incentives in exchange for restraints on the nuclear program; Iran has tabled a plan that in effect calls for a reordering of world power, with Iran a key player, but that is largely silent on its nuclear ambitions.

The United States will be represented by Undersecretary of State William J. Burns. Iran's chief negotiator is Saeed Jalili, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, which decides defense and national security policies, within the framework determined by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both men attended the last such meeting, in July 2008, but Burns could make only a limited presentation, given the restraints placed on him by the Bush administration. He will have no such constraints this time, though Obama administration officials have not decided whether he should seek a one-on-one meeting with Jalili.

For the Americans, time is of the essence. Obama has set an informal deadline of year's end for assessing Iran's intentions before trying to turn up the pressure by seeking to bolster international sanctions. But the administration also wants to demonstrate that it tried every diplomatic avenue, hoping that will convince skeptics of sanctions, such as Russia, that it has demonstrated flexibility in dealing with Tehran.

"We view it is a win-win proposition," Steinberg said. "Either you generate a positive response and you get traction on these issues. Or . . . if you have to take tougher measures, people are not in a position of saying you are determined to go to war or impose sanctions. You can say, 'Look, we really did seriously explore a different approach.' "

For the Iranians, time needs to be dragged out. The Iranian government has made huge strides in its nuclear program -- which it says is for peaceful purposes -- while talks with first the Europeans and then the larger group have dragged on, intermittently, since 2003. While the Iranians have stood still, the other parties have increasingly sweetened their offers and even largely dropped the demand that Iran suspend its enrichment of uranium before talks begin, though sanctions have also been imposed.

Jalili will negotiate along the lines of Iran's proposal, which it presented on Sept. 9 as its response to an April negotiating document from the other nations. European and American diplomats view the five-page Iranian document as a stalling tactic to get past this week's diplomacy at the United Nations, but Iranian officials insist otherwise.

U.S. officials want to narrow discussion to nuclear weapons, but Iranians want to broaden the topics in order to test areas of cooperation. Jalali stressed that the nuclear case should not be considered separately from other issues such as drug trade, terrorism and regional security. "These are issues where we can cooperate," Jalali said. "This will provide a structure for talks."

Within the U.S.-backed proposal, there is a basis for such a discussion. In 2006, the initial package of incentives offered by the six countries included only a vague reference to Iran's security concerns because the Bush administration insisted that section of the offer be largely gutted. A revamped package presented in 2008 -- and reaffirmed by the Obama administration -- offers to negotiate extensive security commitments, including supporting Iran in "playing an important and constructive role in international affairs."

But Iranian officials also insist they will not suspend uranium enrichment, even though that demand has been enshrined in three U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Jalali said there are ways to monitor Iranian activities as long as international regulations are applied equally. "To allow one country like Israel to even build nuclear bombs and not let another country even enrich uranium at low levels is double standards, pure and simple," he said.

Ray Takeyh, until recently a senior State Department adviser on Iran, said truly successful negotiations require an incremental building up of trust as negotiators meet repeatedly and agree on a common endpoint. "It would take time, lots of time, if it happens at all," he said. "But time is not a luxury you have."

Erdbrink reported from Tehran.

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