New York Times: Iranian officials on Tuesday continued their long history of befuddling Western diplomats, as two top officials sounded conciliatory notes about the prospects of eventually breaching the impasse between the West and Tehran over the country’s nuclear ambitions.
The New York Times
By HELENE COOPER
Published: July 2, 2008
WASHINGTON — Iranian officials on Tuesday continued their long history of befuddling Western diplomats, as two top officials sounded conciliatory notes about the prospects of eventually breaching the impasse between the West and Tehran over the country’s nuclear ambitions.
In Tehran, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned against “provocative” remarks on the nuclear crisis, although whether he meant remarks like the ones for which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become known is debatable.
Meanwhile, in New York, Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, struck a soft tone during a press luncheon at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, and refused to repeat Iran’s usual statement that it would never give up its right to uranium enrichment, although he was asked about it directly four times.
In the diplomatic world of trying to decipher Iran’s intentions, and which factions in its government support which policies, the two signs of softening prompted speculation and, in some circles, were as quickly dismissed. A European diplomat involved in the Iran negotiations said the West was getting “tired of reading tea leaves” when it came to figuring out what Iran’s rulers were trying to say.
Some analysts have long speculated that Iran is sending out signals that it may soften its positions and is open to negotiation as a screen while it continues to enrich uranium.
“As usual, they’re trying to keep all of their options open,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University. “They’re talking tough on one hand, hinting that they’re preparing for war, but also sending several signals that they’re willing to negotiate.”
In Tehran, Mr. Velayati, who served as foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, told the newspaper Jomhouri Eslami that “the officials and political experts need to avoid provocative and illogical declarations and slogans.” He said that “a certain declaration could cause us problems; we need to be careful not to make these declarations.”
Outside of Tehran, Iran experts said that Mr. Velayati’s comments may signal increased worry on the part of Iran’s rulers that Israel might attack its nuclear program. The New York Times reported on June 20 that Israel carried out a major military exercise last month that American officials said appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Times article was followed by an ABC News report on Tuesday in which a United States defense official was quoted as saying there was an increasing likelihood that Israel would attack Iran over its nuclear program.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it was doubtful that Iran’s leaders would compromise on the nuclear program amid Israeli saber-rattling. “Khamenei has always said you don’t compromise in the face of pressure, and this is the height of pressure,” he said. “This is the worst time to project a compromise.”
But, he added, “Stranger things have happened, I guess.”
Mr. Mottaki, the foreign minister, told NBC News on Tuesday that he did not believe that Israel would attack Iran. Israel’s position today “will not allow it to engage in regional adventurism,” he said.
“Israel is still facing the post trauma of the attack against Lebanon in 2006,” he said, and therefore Israel is not “in a position to be able to engage in another attack in the region.”
Mr. Mottaki’s appearance at the Iranian Mission was notable more for what he did not say than for what he did. He repeatedly refused to reassert that Iran had a right to enrich uranium, and said that Iran would soon respond to a new package of incentives offered by the six world powers that have been negotiating to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
When asked whether it would be possible for Iran to begin talks with the six powers and then put the issue of negotiating a freeze in uranium enrichment, a key demand of the West, on the table, Mr. Mottaki said: “It is possible to write that the foreign minister did not make a comment on the question of enrichment. We saw potential for the beginning of a new round of talks.”
Informed of Mr. Mottaki’s comment, a Bush administration official said, “Beats me.”
Susan Chira contributed reporting from New York.