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Media Watch | A Breakthrough toward Bilateral US-Iran Nuclear Talks?


22 Oct 2012 01:47Comments

Press Roundup provides a selected summary of news from the Farsi and Arabic press and excerpts where the source is in English. Tehran Bureau has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy. Any views expressed are the authors' own. Please refer to the Media Guide to help put the stories in perspective. You can follow breaking news stories on our Twitter feed.

KhameneiBannerHelicopter.jpg[ in focus ] The New York Times reports that the administration of President Barack Obama is considering direct negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding its nuclear program. Both the United States and Iran have denied the claim.

If the report is correct, the two countries could be making plans to engage in direct and formal bilateral nuclear talks. According to reports in Al-Monitor and NBC, back-channel meetings between the two sides have been taking place since 2009. The BBC reports that the White House told its State Department correspondent the story was wrong, though the same source then confirmed that the White House would like to open a "direct channel to Iran," something the White House has stated for several years.

The Times report has been modified since its initial release on Saturday. The paper did not comment on whether its addition of a qualifier to its report -- one that demonstrates little progress is actually being made diplomatically -- was related to official statements from the White House:

The United States and Iran have agreed for the first time in principle to one-on-one negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.

The words "in principle" were absent from the original version of the article, which suggested the talks were already in the works:

The administration, officials said, has begun an internal review at the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon to determine what the United States' negotiating stance should be, and what it would put in any offer. One option under consideration is "more for more" -- more restrictions on Iran's enrichment activities in return for more easing of sanctions. [...]

Within the administration, there is debate over just how much uranium the United States would allow Iran to enrich inside the country. Among those involved in the deliberations, an official said, are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, two of her deputies -- William J. Burns and Wendy Sherman -- and key White House officials, including the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and two of his lieutenants, Denis R. McDonough and Gary Samore. [...]

A senior American official said that the prospect of direct talks is why there has not been another meeting of the major-powers group on Iran.

Two former officials interviewed by the Times -- R. Nicholas Burns (from the Bush White House) and Dennis Ross (from the Obama White House) -- who were closely involved in the sanctions and diplomatic debates over Iran seemed to offer qualified support for such a direct initiative after the elections, regardless of a victory by Obama or former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the November presidential election. With the new Times qualifiers, though, some commentators have noted the story does not appear to offer as much revelatory information as first heralded.

Prior to the amending of the report, the White House swiftly denied the veracity of the reporting by the Times, via a National Security Council spokesman, who stated, however, that the administration had not ruled out bilateral talks:

It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections. We continue to work with the P-5 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally. The President has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that. It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure.

Iranian officials have also denied that direct negotiations are being pursued, but Press TV and Fars News Agency reported that there will likely be a new round of multilateral talks in November, after the election. According to Fars,

[Foreign Minister Ali Akbar] Salehi dismissed the New York Times report, and reiterated, "We do not have anything called negotiations with the US."

"Yet, if by negotiations you mean the talks between Iran and the Group 5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany), these negotiations are underway now and according to the latest talks (between the two sides' chief negotiators), these negotiations will be held in November or (better to say) late in November," said the Iranian foreign minister.

"But the exact time and venue of the talks have not been specified yet," Salehi went on saying.

Earlier this month, Iran's Deputy Chief Negotiator Ali Baqeri said Tehran is waiting for the world powers' response to its proposal which was presented in the Moscow talks in June, adding that the response would pave the way for future talks between the two sides.

According to the Times report, the government of Israel responded negatively when it was informed of the initiative:

Israeli officials initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative. But when asked for a response on Saturday, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said the administration had not informed Israel, and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to "advance their nuclear weapons program."

"We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks," Mr. Oren said, "rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased."

Following the story's publication, Israeli officials struck back even harder, with Haaretz reporting that a "senior source in the Prime Minister's Office said that Israel does not know of any renewal of talks with Iran and believes that Iran is using these talks to waste time and continue its nuclear program in the meantime." Israeli officials told Reuters that while there are indeed "indirect channels" between the United States and Iran, nothing concrete has yet been accomplished through such contacts. Israeli officials generally refrained from criticizing the Obama administration over the report, saying they "accepted" the official denial.

While an agreement -- even if only "in principle" -- to hold talks could be seen as a victory for the White House, ABC suggests that this could backfire into a hot mic moment, as when Obama told Russian officials that he would have "more flexibility" on negotiating a missile treaty with them if he wins reelection. Commentators Tony Karon of Time and Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council both suggest that the report may have been a "hostile leak" from the White House, aimed at limiting the president's negotiating options -- whether Romney or Obama wins on November 6.

CNN has suggested that the talks are indeed under consideration, but that the leak has forced the Administration to refute the Times reporting to avoid upsetting the Israelis. CBS, though, says "senior US officials" told them that "Iran has yet to show that it is prepared to re-engage seriously."

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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