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U.S. Dismisses Notion of Direct Talks with Iran

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U.S. Dismisses Notion of Direct Talks with Iran

Middle East

U.S. Dismisses Notion of Direct Talks with Iran

U.S. Dismisses Notion of Direct Talks with Iran

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Iran's chief nuclear negotiator told USA Today this week that he'd be willing to have direct talks with the U.S. over nuclear issues. The State Department called the offer a distraction and pressed forward with its plans to bring Iran to the U.N. Security Council.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The United States is engaging in high stakes diplomacy over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Iran and the United States are not talking with each other, but Iran is sending messages through the media. Iran's chief nuclear negotiator told USA Today this week, that he would be willing to have direct talks with the United States.

The State Department called that offer a distraction, and pressed forward with its plans to bring Iran to the United Nations Security Council. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

United States diplomacy is focused on one goal for the moment: isolating Iran in hopes that Tehran will change its behavior and give up what the United States suspects is a nuclear weapons program. The idea of sitting down with Iranian negotiators and talking directly about this isn't on the menu according to Nicholas Burns, the number three official at the State Department.

Mr. R. NICHOLAS BURNS (Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, U.S. Department of State): It's not possible for an American administration to extend an olive branch to them for the first time in 25 years and say we're going to have diplomatic relations or we're going to have a series of talks, not with this regime. This regime is so radical and, frankly, so antithetical to American interests that we've got to show them a little bit of strength here, and strength is trying to isolate them.

KELEMAN: And Burns said the international community showed that strength when the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to report Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. The Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs described the Iranian offer of talks as a publicity stunt aimed at dividing the international community, an effort he thinks will fail.

Mr. BURNS: There is going to be a bright, international spotlight shown upon Iran and they're gonna have to reflect on their choices and their choices are quite limited. No country in the world wants to see Iran construct nuclear weapons and, certainly, no country in the world wants to see them continue to be the lead supporter of international terrorism in the Middle East. So, a diplomatic standoff has occurred and I think the diplomatic stakes have gotten a lot more difficult for Iran.

KELEMAN: But the stakes are also high for the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she doesn't underestimate the difficulty of maintaining an international consensus on Iran, especially at the United Nations. Columbia University professor Gary Sick fears that the U.N. route could lead to trouble.

Professor GARY SICK (Senior Research Scholar, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs and Acting Director, Middle East Institute, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University): Everybody is posturing. Everybody is taking very, very extreme positions and that's okay for the bargaining part of the thing but what makes me nervous is that each side may, in fact, begin to believe what it's been saying and, basically, each side paint themselves into a corner and can't escape and we end up in this kind of spiral conflict.

KELEMAN: Sick was a White House aide on Iran during the hostage crisis and the Iranian revolution before the U.S. cut off all diplomatic ties. He describes U.S.-Iranian relations since then as a seesaw--when one side is up, the other is down.

Professor SICK: We've had a few cases that's rare when there's a kind of equilibrium and one of those cases was after the Afghan war where the United States wanted to set up a new government with the Karzai government and so forth, and in that case, in fact, the Iranians worked very closely with the United States.

KELEMAN: More recently though, Iran rebuffed the Bush administration's offer for some limited contacts to discuss the situation in Iraq. Brown University professor William Beeman has been advocating direct talks for years now. He's the author of the book The Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

Mr. WILLIAM BEEMAN (Author): The United States and Iran have been working with a mythological image of evil of each other and it's self-reinforcing. The political scientist Richard Codham(ph) actually talks about this as a spiral conflict where one country reinforces the evil image of the other and the relations deteriorate and deteriorate until it comes to a crisis point and that's what we're reaching right now.

KELEMAN: The Bush administration describes the current situation as a new phase in diplomacy and the State Department's Nicholas Burns says there's still time to persuade Iran to turn back from its nuclear future. Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington.

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