The Cable

Iran envoy says reports Iran ready for nuclear dialogue cite from letter (UPDATED)

In a seeming sign of continued turmoil inside the Iranian government, an Iranian diplomat tried to walk back an earlier statement carried by Iranian state television Tuesday that Iran was ready to enter into talks with the West about its nuclear program, insisting his earlier comments were drawn from a letter he had written to ...

In a seeming sign of continued turmoil inside the Iranian government, an Iranian diplomat tried to walk back an earlier statement carried by Iranian state television Tuesday that Iran was ready to enter into talks with the West about its nuclear program, insisting his earlier comments were drawn from a letter he had written to the United Nations.

"There have been no comments or interviews with TV networks on nuclear talks or conditions," Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Iranian state television Tuesday, as reported by Iran’s Press TV.

"Soltanieh added, however, that he had referred to a letter he sent to the United Nations calling for a ban on armed attacks against nuclear facilities around the world," the Press TV report continued. (UPDATE: Here’s a copy of the letter to which Soltanieh was referring [.pdf]).

Earlier Tuesday, news wires monitoring Iranian state television reported: "Soltanieh announced Iran’s readiness to take part in any negotiations with the West based on mutual respect."

"Talks without preconditions is Iran’s main stance in negotiations on the nuclear issue," Soltanieh was earlier cited by Iranian state television, according to Reuters.

Soltanieh’s seemingly equivocal denial, as it was reported, and the fact that both statements were carried by government-controlled Iranian state television, seem to demonstrate all that is fraught in efforts to try to get dialogue with Iran underway, especially in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 12 elections.

Iran experts have described Soltanieh as a technocrat being directed in both of today’s statements by political leadership in Tehran.

"He is a technocrat not considered to be part of any particular faction," Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council told Foreign Policy Tuesday. "Nor is he known to freelance foreign policy, on the contrary. So this statement represents what [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and indirectly [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei want to do."

"Two to one he said what he was quoted as saying, then got told to deny it," judged Washington Institute for Near East Policy Iran expert Patrick Clawson.

The administration did not immediately respond to queries about its reaction to the reports.

Senior Obama administration officials have recently telegraphed that Iran has roughly until the United Nations General Assembly opening in mid-September to positively respond to the Western offer for talks on its nuclear program, or face stepped up international sanctions and other pressure. "The president has been quite clear that this is not an open ended offer to engage," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a news conference in Israel last month. "I think that the president is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of a response this fall, perhaps, by the time of the U.N. General Assembly."

Parsi said while the Iranian response is in some ways predictable, and that some in Washington may interpret it as "stringing the West along," his concern is different: What if the Iranians show up to negotiations, and they simply can’t make a decision because of continued post-elections political turmoil? "I don’t think worst case is that they don’t show up," Parsi said. "They’ll show up. The worst case scenario is that they show up but they are incapable of making any big decisions because of political infighting in Iran."

But another nonproliferation expert experienced with Iran who asked to speak anonymously was more cautiously optimistic, while noting the Iranian negotiating tendency of saying yes, then no, then maybe.

"I think we all have clear in mind what an agreeement based on mutual respect could be," the expert told Foreign Policy by e-mail Tuesday, "recognizing Iran’s right to enrichment, with additional international controls on Iran’s nuclear activities including the additional protocol, combined with some constraints. If Iran is clear about this, then the situation can go forward."

The Washington Institute’s Clawson was not convinced. "Ali Asghar Soltanieh is not a major player in Iranian nuclear policy," he said. "There is little reason to think that he would be the person to make any major announcement.  His usual role is to appear reasonable to Western audiences. … His statement did not suggest that Iran was open to any compromise on the issues about which the West cares."

"Much ado about absolutely nothing, in my view," agreed Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nonproliferation expert George Perkovich. "And, if and when the Iranians show up for actual discussions, they won’t put out anything that resembles a compromise or necessary moves.  Why would they unless and until they see that there will be consequences if they don’t?"

Last year, as Foreign Policy previously reported, several nonproliferation experts who have since taken prominent positions in the Obama administration participated in a "track 2" dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program at which Soltanieh was a participant. Among those who attended some of the four sessions convened by the Pugwash conference in Vienna and the Hague, Obama’s top WMD coordinator Gary Samore, NSC senior director on Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, and others.

"I think there’s an advantage to have people in the administration who have some experience dealing with Iranian experts and officials," Samore told Foreign Policy in February, saying that he had attended one of the Pugwash-sponsored dialogues on Iran’s nuclear program in the Hague last summer in his then private capacity as a nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It gives you a stronger position to mount a diplomatic effort. Knowledge is better than ignorance."

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