The Cable

Obama administration anticipated Iran talks response

As Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns arrived in Frankfurt for the next round of international talks on Iran’s nuclear program, news reports Tuesday suggested Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to respond to the Western offer for nuclear talks during a speech at the U.N. General Assembly due to take place the week ...

As Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns arrived in Frankfurt for the next round of international talks on Iran’s nuclear program, news reports Tuesday suggested Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to respond to the Western offer for nuclear talks during a speech at the U.N. General Assembly due to take place the week of September 21 in New York.

Diplomatic sources tell The Cable that the Obama administration has recently said it saw signs that the Iranian government plans to issue some sort of response to the West’s offer to engage on its nuclear program. But, diplomats said, the Obama administration anticipates that the response when tested will not prove meaningful, and is likely at most to only stretch for a short time an anticipated effort to start pushing for international sanctions in the coming weeks and months targeting Iran.

The Obama administration has given Iran until September 15 to respond to the talks offer, or face an increased international sanctions effort.

Reports from Tehran further said that Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili announced Tuesday that Iran "has prepared a new nuclear proposal and is ready to resume talks on its nuclear program." The reported Jalili announcement on Iranian state TV came as Iran’s Supreme National Security Council met, a day before Washington, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China are due to hold the next round of the so-called P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Frankfurt Wednesday.

"We’ve seen these press reports that they’re developing a new proposal," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said at a press briefing Tuesday.  "We have not received any proposal.  We would review any proposal that they give us seriously, and in the spirit of mutual respect we would welcome the Iranian Government’s constructive response to the P-5+1 to their April 2009 invitation to meet face-to-face."

Kelly later specified that Washington would consider a meaningful response from Tehran to be one that "that said ‘we understand that we have certain obligations that we have to adhere to, and that they welcome a reengagement with us in the P-5+1 context to try and address some of these concerns that we have.’"

Burns is attending the talks accompanied by aide Elisa Catalano, a State Department senior advisor formerly assigned to office of Dennis Ross who is now serving as a liaison in Burns’s office to the NSC. Diplomat David Bame and counselor Gamal Helal are still waiting to join Ross at the NSC, sources said, while Farsi speaking Iran expert Ray Takeyh is returning to the Council on Foreign Relations. It wasn’t immediately clear if Ross or NSC senior director for Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar was also attending the Frankfurt talks with Burns.

"We hear rumors of a possible Iranian signal even before the Frankfurt P5+1 meeting" Wednesday, one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity Tuesday. "State and NSC expect something from the Iranians at the U.N. General Assembly. But it won’t be enough. … They are smart enough to do something, to try to stretch the process a bit more."

There have been consultations between Washington, the British, French, and Germans in particular on possible further sanctions, the diplomat said. The Israelis were said to have seen the whole package of proposed possible international sanctions, which were described according to the diplomat as "big bang" sanctions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in meetings last week in London and Germany, told western leaders the military option was not his preferred route, a second western official apprised of the discussions said. The implication, the second official said, was that there was growing Israeli confidence in the possible effectiveness of the anticipated sanctions plan.

Senior administration officials also confirmed to Western diplomats previous reports that the Obama administration did receive a letter from the Iranian government before its June 12 elections responding to a reported Obama letter offering negotiations. They were excited they had got a response, the diplomat said of the Obama administration, but said the letter itself was pretty disappointing. It did not get into anything of substance and had nothing to build on.

UPDATE: An Iranian newspaper is reporting that Obama has sent another letter to the Iranian authorities, reiterating the talks offer. No details on when the reported letter was sent were available, and the administration has declined to comment on the reports. Previously, asked about earlier alleged letter from the Iranian leadership to Obama, the administration said it declined to comment on private correspondence.

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