Amid the Bluster, Iran and the United States Might Just Give Diplomacy a Chance

A rare meeting to include both American and Iranian officials brings a glint of optimism.

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Despite recent test-firings of missiles and sporadic bursts of bluster by Tehran, there are growing indications that Iran might be preparing to accept preliminary talks about its nuclear program with a group of countries that includes the United States.

It would hardly be the first time that tough actions or rhetoric presage diplomatic movement; such tactics are a time-honored method countries use to position themselves before any give-and-take begins.

"I think both sides are softening," says Gary Sick, a longtime Iran expert with Columbia University who served on the National Security Council during the Iran hostage crisis. "I see a little glimmer of hope here."

This Saturday, Iranian officials are to meet with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Geneva to discuss recent proposals each side has given the other. And for the first time in direct discussions with Iran on its nuclear program, there will be an American in the room—the No. 3 U.S. diplomat, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns.

Burns is not expected to negotiate, and the administration says his presence—which breaks a self-imposed taboo—is a one-time gesture. Still, European officials are pleased at the more direct U.S. role, and the shift suggests that the long-running nuclear stalemate with Iran is arriving at a potentially key juncture.

Though an unambiguous breakthrough seems unlikely over the weekend, some Iranian officials are interested in finding a way to move forward, based largely on an idea presented in private in June by Solana on behalf of a six-nation group.

The idea is to get a conversation going about what full-fledged negotiations would look like between Iran and the P-5 plus 1: the five permanent United Nations Security Council members (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany. The group's new proposal has been dubbed "freeze for freeze." Iran would have to stop all new nuclear activity, such as installing more centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and the P-5 plus 1 would halt consideration of new U.N. sanctions for a period of six weeks. Showing new flexibility, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explicitly signed off on the idea.

State Department officials call it a short-term, interim step with the aim of getting Iran to the bargaining table. Once there, as the group has demanded all along, Iran is supposed to suspend all its nuclear work for the duration of negotiations, while the Security Council would suspend its sanctions.

"We have seen some positive remarks," says one official. But whether Iran would be willing to comply and reverse its position on an issue ballyhooed as a national cause remains in deep doubt.

The negotiating group has sweetened the incentives Iran would receive in a future nuclear deal, acknowledging not only that Iran has a right to develop peaceful nuclear energy but that it would receive technical and financial help for proliferation-resistant light-water reactors. The official at State calls the package "generous" and says the administration remains committed to a diplomatic resolution.

Tehran is showing unaccustomed interest, if vaguely. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told American journalists in New York this month that he sees potential for new talks and that the proposal from the United States and its negotiating partners was being closely examined. Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Iran's supreme spiritual leader, has publicly urged accepting negotiations. His boss, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is Iran's ultimate authority on foreign and defense policy—not the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"His [Ahmadinejad's] influence on the nuclear file has waned, and Khamenei is firmly in charge," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Indeed, Khamenei's hand may be behind the perplexing pairing of modest Iranian overtures with the blunt warnings against an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities by either the United States or Israel that accompanied the missile firings in early July. The main impulse behind the Iranian test-firings seemed to be to deter any attack rather than to advance its military capabilities. One Revolutionary Guards official allied with Khamenei vowed that if there were a strike on Iran, "Tel Aviv and U.S. naval fleet in the Persian Gulf will be the first targets which will be set on fire in Iran's crushing response."