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Analysis: Iran uses U.S. talks on Iraq to push nuclear agenda

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Iran Focus: London, Mar. 17 – It’s been feted by some in the West as a major turnaround in Iran’s policy, but sources close to the Iranian government say Tehran’s unexpected announcement on Thursday that it intended to hold direct talks with the United States on the subject of Iraq is primarily aimed at giving a push to the country’s nuclear diplomacy. Iran Focus

London, Mar. 17 – It’s been feted by some in the West as a major turnaround in Iran’s policy, but sources close to the Iranian government say Tehran’s unexpected announcement on Thursday that it intended to hold direct talks with the United States on the subject of Iraq is primarily aimed at giving a push to the country’s nuclear diplomacy.

“This is a quintessential example of the old Chinese proverb, ‘one bed, two dreams’, with the Americans dreaming of a pacified Iraq and the Iranians dreaming of making their nukes without being sanctioned or bombed on the way”, said Simon Bailey, an Iran analyst at the London-based Gulf Intelligence Monitor.

“Expectations that this is the first opening that would lead to the ‘grand bargain’ are misplaced”, he said.

Bailey believes that the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad found itself in a diplomatic quagmire over the nuclear issue after the U.S. successfully coaxed the dossier to the United Nations Security Council. Now, he says, the ruling clerics are in “crisis mode” and want to try a number of tactics to get out of the imbroglio and avoid military attacks or sanctions.

“Hence the belated response to U.S. offers of talks on Iraq”, he said.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan stressed that any contacts would be limited to the topic of Iraq. In Tehran, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Friday prayers congregation that “the position of the Islamic Republic of Iran is clear: the subject [of the talks”> is Iraq, but it’s the American position that is dualistic”.

“Mr. Abdul-Aziz Hakim [the Iranian-backed Shiite leader in Iraq”> urged us to hold talks with America on the subject of Iraq, because of the special situation that has come about in Iraq”, Mottaki said. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will do this … and will counter the opportunistic acts of some circles in America that have already begun”.

The Bush administration said last year that it was willing to engage in limited discussions with Iran about how to maintain peace in Iraq, with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, authorised to speak to Iranian officials. But until Thursday, Tehran had rebuffed the overtures.

“For months, the Iranians said nothing, and now they make this announcement just as they are facing possible action at the United Nations”, said Ahmad Shirkhani, an expatriate Iranian political scientist in London. “This in itself suggests that Tehran is trying to link any help to the United States in Iraq with the nuclear issue”.

The Bush administration has gone out of its way to say that the two should not be linked. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on a visit to Australia on Friday that the Bush administration would not consider talks with Iran about Iraq “a negotiation of some kind”. Rice did not give a timeline for potential talks and indicated they would only involve Khalilzad.

“The Iranians are not looking for any long-term result out of these talks”, said Akbar Khoshnevis, a Persian Gulf analyst based in Dubai. “For them, it’s the immediate effect of the announcement of talks between the U.S. and Iran that matters. This, in their view, will have a marked effect on the political line-up in the Security Council, pushing the Russians and the Chinese more to their side and making the Europeans more cautious in their support for a tough U.S. line on Iran. They’ll all be thinking, if the Americans are going to have talks with these guys, why should we stick our necks out? Where would our interests lie?”

Nader Zamani, a journalist who has recently left Tehran, said in a telephone interview from his temporary residence in Istanbul that there was an important domestic angle in Tehran’s announcement that it was ready to talk to the U.S. about Iraq.

“When Iran was referred to the Security Council, the impact on the social psyche of Iranians was immense”, Zamani said. “You could feel it in the streets. People were much less fearful of airing their grievances in public. Even the hard-line supporters of the regime were more subdued, fearful of what might happen. Once the regime announces that it’s talking to the U.S., this is going to immediately reverse those sentiments. People will be saying, the Americans will be happy to strike a deal with the mullahs if this served their interests. The domestic impact of the announcement is therefore very important to the regime”.

Iran’s announcement came on the same day the Bush administration released its new national security strategy, which declares that Iran may be the largest security challenge to the United States. It also accuses the Iranian regime of sponsoring terrorism, threatening Israel, disrupting democracy in Iraq, and thwarting the Iranian people’s desire for freedom.

“The Americans have to weigh their options very carefully”, Khoshnevis said. “They’ll have to be mindful of the danger that 15 months of deft diplomatic manoeuvring by the Bush administration to create this much international consensus on Iran would be undermined by direct talks with Tehran. Obviously, this is what Tehran is looking for”.

Whatever lies in the future, experts agree that Tehran’s latest announcement has vindicated the position of those in the West who have been calling for more pressure on the Iranian theocracy as the only way of making it respond.

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