White House Denies Iran's Charge of Secret Obama Letter

Senior Obama official denies the president quietly sought bilateral talks with Tehran.

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The White House flatly denied a senior Iranian official's charge Thursday that President Barack Obama quietly reached out to Iranian officials about launching direct talks over Tehran's nuclear arms ambitions, a charge flatly denied by the White House.

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During a visit to Turkey, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Obama "sent a letter to Iranian officials," but added Washington should "make clear that it has good intentions and should express that it's ready for talks without conditions."

When "out in the open," Obama administration officials "show their muscles, but behind the curtains they plead to us to sit down and talk," Salehi said, according to reports from Ankara. "America has to pursue a safe and honest strategy so we can get the notion that America this time is serious and ready."

Washington and its allies have said they would negotiate with Tehran, but only if Iranian officials halt a uranium enrichment program. Obama also has balked at talks that only include U.S. and Iranian officials. The White House reiterated that message Thursday.

"The president did not send a letter to the [Iranian] supreme leader about the Strait of Hormuz that proposed direct talks," a senior Obama administration official said.

U.S. officials and lawmakers have traded barbs with Iranian leaders in recent months, since a U.N. inspection team's report concluded Tehran is closer than ever to fielding a nuclear weapon. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said a nuclear-armed Iran is a "red line" for Washington. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey confirmed earlier this month that Pentagon officials are examining Iran strike options.

Iranian officials, for their part, threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil transportation route in the Middle East. Washington responded by sending an aircraft carrier through the strait.

In recent days, the rhetoric has thawed a bit.

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"We want peace and tranquility in the region. But some of the countries in our region, they want to direct other countries 12,000 miles away from this region," Salehi said Thursday, referring to Washington and its Middle East allies. One day before, Panetta told reporters that while "we'll ... be prepared to respond militarily if we have to," the Obama administration has "always expressed a willingness" to "pursue diplomacy."

At a press briefing Wednesday, White House Press Secretary John Carney said, "Iran's behavior and its refusal to engage in serious discussions about this issue, its refusal to live up to its international obligations, its persistence in pursuing a nuclear program in a manner that's not consistent with those international obligations has led to the consistent ratcheting up of pressure on Iran."

"And it has put enormous pressure on Iran," Carney said. It has isolated Iran. And that continues."

The European Union is expected to slap an oil embargo on Tehran Monday and freeze the assets of its central bank. That will come about a month after Congress and the White House agreed to new American sanctions aimed at Iran's main bank.

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Some U.S. lawmakers, like Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who sits on the House subcommittee that oversees military spending, have expressed concerns that harsh rhetoric and a lack of communication could put Washington and Tehran on a collision course toward war over the latter's nuclear weapons program.

Anthony Cordesman, a Pentagon adviser and a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analyst, told U.S. News & World Report that the two nations are not necessarily headed for a fight-as long as both sides "understand clashes don't mean war, and disagreements don't mean war."

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