New York Times: Iranian officials on Thursday uniformly dismissed Washington’s offer to engage in direct talks on the condition that they first suspend all uranium enrichment, yet they could not hide their satisfaction that the offer had been made at all. The New York Times
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
TEHRAN, June 1 Iranian officials on Thursday uniformly dismissed Washington’s offer to engage in direct talks on the condition that they first suspend all uranium enrichment, yet they could not hide their satisfaction that the offer had been made at all.
In interviews, the officials and Iranian analysts said the American proposal indicated that Iran’s uncompromising approach in its handling of the nuclear crisis had successfully forced the United States to take it more seriously, even if no progress had been made on solving the conflict. Earning that measure of respect, many said, is its own reward.
“The fact that Ms. Rice has announced the United States willingness to hold talks with Iran is more important than the conditions she set,” said Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst from Tehran who has close relations with people in the government.
Iran did not respond immediately to the word from Vienna that the United States had succeeded in rallying Russia, China and the European powers behind a comprehensive offer of political and economic incentives in return for its giving up its nuclear activities. But the core of Iran’s stance, which it credits for what it considers its recent diplomatic successes, is its refusal to stop enriching uranium, which it says is its right under international treaties.
“We won’t negotiate about the Iranian nation’s natural nuclear rights, but we are prepared, within a defined, just framework and without any discrimination, to hold dialogue about common concerns,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Thursday in comments broadcast on Iran radio.
In many ways, reactions to Washington’s proposal to break 27 years of silence toward Iran mirrors the American reaction to the letter that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to President Bush.
While the letter, which among other things declared liberal democracy a failure, was summarily dismissed, even mocked, its very existence was perceived by many in Washington and Tehran as an effort to reach out and begin a dialogue.
In an interview, Javad Vaeidi, the Iranian Supreme Security Council’s deputy head for international affairs, agreed that the United States overture was, in itself, a positive step similar to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter.
But he flatly rejected not only the content but also the tone of the proposal. As Mr. Vaeidi defined the conflict, it is as much about earning respect for Iran as about developing nuclear power. It would be humiliating to give up enrichment, he said.
“The wording unfortunately shows that still the Bush administration does not want to convince us that they are ready to consider our rights and interests,” Mr. Vaeidi said during a two-hour interview in the Supreme Security Council offices in central Tehran. “The content, I think, is based on domestic affairs of the United States.”
For two years under the previous president, Mohammad Khatami, Iran suspended its nuclear enrichment activities as part of a strategy based on so-called confidence building. But the Iranian leadership eventually concluded that it would never achieve its goal by acceding to the West’s demands, Mr. Vaeidi said.
With Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election as president in June, Tehran did not change its goal, Mr. Vaeidi said.
But it did change its tactics, adopting an aggressive and uncompromising approach. And while there is a degree of anxiety over the prospect of punitive action by the United Nations Security Council, Iranian officials and analysts here say the new strategy has succeeded by allowing Iran to set the agenda.
“We are not after adventure,” Mr. Vaeidi said. “We do not want trouble; we do not want confrontation. We just want our rights.”
Until now, Washington and Tehran have chiefly used surrogates in a battle of wits and recrimination that dates to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis in the United States Embassy here. Even on the nuclear issue there has been no direct back and forth between Tehran and Washington.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter and Washington’s offer seem to have moved the ball. But it is not at all clear what comes next, as each side holds tightly to its basic demands regarding enrichment.
“The Bush administration thinks the Iranian people are willing to lose their rights just to create a dialogue with the West,” Mr. Vaeidi said.
European diplomats in Iran said that for some time their capitals had been pressing Washington to directly engage Tehran, saying any package of incentives to induce Iran to give up its nuclear program would be meaningless without a security guarantee from the United States.
But Iranian officials have also set seemingly impossible conditions for face-to-face talks, like an absolute American guarantee of their government’s security, even while saying they would welcome such talks.
At the same time, conservative Iranian officials are not all that eager to improve relations with the United States, because they fear that doing so might prop up the opposition parties that talk about democracy, said a political scientist who insisted on anonymity because of his close ties to the government.
Iran’s insistence on defining the conflict in broad, historical terms also complicates any effort to find a diplomatic solution. Mr. Vaeidi said that ever since the revolution the United States had pursued a policy toward Iran of “denial and containment” denying the legitimacy of the government and containing Iran’s influence in the region. He said he saw Washington’s effort to suppress Iran’s nuclear program as an extension of that policy.
“In my opinion,” Mr. Vaeidi said, “the main issue is not Iran’s nuclear activities. The main issue is actually the Iranian people’s position in the future of the region and in international affairs.”
The threshold for substantive talks with the Americans, he said, “is when they accept our rights, our interests, our security.”
Mr. Vaeidi took the early lead in negotiating with the Russians and has headed Iran’s delegation to meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. To listen to Mr. Vaeidi is to hear a historical overview of Iran’s victimization at the hands of foreign powers, including France, Russia, Britain and the United States. It is to hear a worldview set by outside meddling in Iranian affairs and international opposition to what is now hailed as a breakthrough moment for the nation: the nationalization of its oil reserves.
If there is one element of American foreign policy that seems to baffle Mr. Vaeidi, it is the United States support for Israel. While he did not repeat President Ahmadinejad’s call for wiping Israel off the map, he did say he viewed Israel as an illegitimate state. And he said he believed that the United States would one day realize that it was not in its best interests to continue to support Israel.
But if there was one recurring theme that ran throughout the interview with Mr. Vaeidi, it was respect. Iran, he said, expects to be treated as any other nation that has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and not to be singled out as different and less trustworthy.
“We are not an exception,” he said. “Why do we have to accept this point?”
Nazila Fathi contributed reporting for this article.