Obama Administration Weighs Timing for Potential Iran Talks

Would Tehran's hard-liners exploit any agreement on talks as a victory heading into June elections?

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In its review of Iran policy, the Obama administration is wrestling with how and when to initiate direct talks with Iran, a senior European official says. A key factor is the upcoming June presidential election in Iran, pitting the current hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against a more moderate former president, Mohammed Khatami, and perhaps others.

Both European and U.S. officials are concerned that a major negotiating push now would tend to strengthen Ahmadinejad, who has worked to toughen Iran's stance against suspending nuclear work as a condition for broad-gauge negotiations over nuclear and security issues with the U.S. and other key countries. "They're caught in that difficult position where they have to balance the pros and cons of making a move before the presidential election," the European diplomat said of U.S. officials.

The diplomat did not offer much hope that even a Khatami victory would clear the way for a satisfactory nuclear deal, saying it was an article "of faith within the regime that they all have to support the nuclear program."

One risk of early talks, said the official, is that Iranian hard-liners might seize on a more flexible Obama approach to talking directly as "a sign that their line is the right one."

There is also uncertainty about how Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will react to a U.S. proposal for dialogue, given his apparent worries that opening up to the West could endanger the regime's survival. Another question the Obama officials are considering, said the official, is whether to attempt to pursue any future talks in strict confidence—without public disclosure—or not.

The official suggested that conducting talks in secret for long "in today's world [is] difficult," a reference to the possibility of leaks and aggressive news media probing of the expected U.S.-Iranian contacts. In any case, the diplomat said, "when to go public" would be an important issue in crafting an approach to Iran on the nuclear issue.