Despite Bluster, U.S., Iran, May Be Open To Talks

Signals have come from Iran and the U.S. in recent days that suggest a willingness of both nations to return to the negotiating table.

This comes as something of a surprise, given the recent economic sanctions imposed on Iran and hostile public remarks from both sides. Amid talk of defiance and possible military action, Iran and the U.S. may be looking for an opportunity to engage in diplomacy.

Sparring Over Sanctions

For much of the past spring, top U.S. officials were talking about imposing serious sanctions — sanctions that bite. Not long ago, Secretary of State Clinton even talked about imposing crippling sanctions on Iran.

In June, the U.N. Security Council adopted sanctions that were watered down, but then the U.S. and the European Union followed with punitive sanctions that, among other provisions, are putting serious pressure on Iran's banks.

In Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the sanctions as no more threatening than a used piece of tissue.

But behind the scenes, it appears the Iranians are more concerned than they are letting on, said Nader Hashemi, an Iran expert at the University of Denver.

"Now that sanctions have been passed and both sides are looking to the future, there is a sense that neither side will benefit from perpetuating this cycle of acrimony, tension and conflict," Hashemi said.

An Olive Branch

A strong signal came last week from the U.S. State Department, where a spokesman said the U.S. is still interested in talking to Iran about a uranium swap deal, first floated last year, but never consummated. The U.S. took this deal off the table, but now it appears there is renewed interest.

That offer surfaced even as the periodic talk about the possibility that the U.S. or Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities spiked upward. And then came a quick positive response from Tehran.

Ahmadinejad sent his own signal, said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University.

"As soon as the State Department made out that statement, Ahmadinejad went public saying that he welcomed the opportunity to have a televised, man-to-man, I'm quoting him, televised man-to-man conversation with President Obama," Debashi said. "So something is in the offing."

Ahmadinejad's proposed debate came during a public speech covered by Iranian state TV.

"We are ready to sit down and hold talks with Mr. Obama," Ahmadinejad said. "We have made plans to go to the United Nations toward the end of September. We are ready to sit down with Mr. Obama, face-to-face, man-to-man — free and in the presence of media — to put the issues of the world on the table."

Comments from administration officials suggest there is little interest in the vague proposal to discuss the issues of the world. Nor is there much interest inside the administration in focusing on military action.

But there is interest in talking to Iran about the issues that confront the two nations. That was clear from comments Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, made earlier this week.

"The important point to concentrate on now is not military action ... .The important thing to concentrate on now is how do we find a way peacefully, diplomatically, with engagement and mutual respect, to get Iran to begin to fulfill its obligations," Davies said.

Iran's Economic Woes

It may be that the sanctions deserve the credit for moving Iran's government toward new talks. But more to the point, said Hashemi, is that Iran's economy was in trouble long before it faced the most recent sanctions.

"The reality on the ground is that Iran's economic conditions and its future prospects look very bleak indeed," Hashemi said. "All the indications are that Iran is headed for a major economic crisis of huge proportions that will affect the stability of the government and the regime knows that."

Still, earlier offers from Iran and the U.S. to talk have amounted to little. There's also the factor of Iran's domestic political opposition, which after more than a year of turmoil in the streets and challenges to the regime, has been beaten for the moment into submission.

Dabashi says it will be hard for the Obama administration to fashion any approach to Iran that leaders in Tehran won't exploit.

"Whatever the United States and its allies do with the Islamic Republic would strengthen it," Debashi said. "If they sanction and attack it militarily, they will strengthen it. If they sit down and negotiate, they will strengthen it."

But for the moment, the Obama administration appears willing to take that risk for the sake of real diplomatic engagement.

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