Iran’s Envoy Sees Upcoming Talks as an Opening

Fellows Fall 2009

By Joby Warrick

September 18, 2009

Published in The Washington Post

VIENNA, Sept. 17 -- A top Iranian negotiator on nuclear matters has given a hopeful prognosis for upcoming talks with the United States and other world powers, calling the discussions a "real, new window of opportunity" and suggesting that the Islamic republic is prepared to address U.S. concerns about its nuclear intentions.

At the same time, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned against attempts to intimidate his country with threats of new sanctions and said it is not prepared to give up its basic right to pursue peaceful nuclear power.

Soltanieh sought in a nearly two-hour interview late Wednesday to clarify Iran's reasons for proposing wide-ranging talks Oct. 1 with the Obama administration and five other countries. Although some Iranian officials have suggested that Iran's nuclear program is not open for negotiation, Soltanieh said that Tehran's motives are sincere and that Western governments should "read between the lines."

"The whole thing is being done with good intentions," Soltanieh told The Washington Post during the interview in the ornate office of the Iranian mission to the United Nations in Vienna. "This is a real, new window of opportunity that is being opened by the Iranian nation."

The West, he said, "should immediately and promptly seize this opportunity."

But in an interview posted Thursday on NBC News's Web site, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to play down the prospects for a breakthrough, saying: "If you are talking about the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, this will never be closed down here in Iran." He also four times refused to explicitly rule out Iran eventually acquiring nuclear weapons.

"Nuclear arms, we believe they belong to the past and the past generation," he said through an interpreter. "We do not see any need for such weapons."

The P5-plus-one talks will involve Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- as well as Germany.

Many U.S officials have expressed skepticism about the discussions, the first in more than a year, because Iran has appeared to rule out curbs on its production of enriched uranium. U.S. and IAEA officials are continuing to press Iran to explain intercepted documents that suggest Tehran was conducting research on nuclear weapons early in the decade. U.S. intelligence officials say they think Iran halted the work in 2003.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that Iran experts at the IAEA think Tehran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb and worked on developing a missile system that can carry an atomic warhead, citing a report stamped "confidential" and titled "Possible Military Dimension of Iran's Nuclear Program." The document asserts that Iran's nuclear arms ambitions date to 1984, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, was president and Iran was at war with Iraq.

At a top-level meeting at that time, according to the document, Khamenei endorsed a nuclear weapons program, saying, "A nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God's soldiers."

The AP said it saw two versions of the U.N. document -- one running 67 pages that was described as being six months to a year old, and the most recent one with more than 80 pages and growing because of constant updates.

In response to the AP report, the agency issued a statement saying it "reiterates that it has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran."

Soltanieh said Iran takes a favorable view of President Obama's offer of negotiations without preconditions and thinks such talks could form the basis for a fundamental change in relations between the two countries. He suggested that many of the problems with the West in recent years had stemmed from "miscalculations" by U.S. and European leaders who failed to understand or appreciate Iranian cultural sensitivities.

"If you use the policy of the carrot and stick, if you use the dual track of sanctions and dialogue, this is counterproductive -- this is humiliation, if you really know Iranian culture," said Soltanieh, a key figure behind Iran's nuclear policies for three decades. "If you tell me, 'You must,' I say, 'No.' If you say 'please,' the answer might be 'yes' or 'maybe.' "

Soltanieh noted that in the past Iran had voluntarily agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and to accept more intrusive inspections by U.N. observers, "not as an obligation but as a confidence-building measure . . . in order to help and to remove ambiguities." But when threatened with sanctions to force a permanent halt to uranium enrichment, Iran balked, he said.

"We will pay any price, but we will not accept being dictated [to]," he said. "We had a revolution to remove a dictator."

He said the October talks could lead to changes that might reassure Western powers regarding Iran's activities and ambitions -- changes intended to "make sure everyone is comfortable" -- although he declined to speculate on what those might be.

Warrick, a Washington Post staff writer, reported as part of a fellowship with the nonprofit International Reporting Project.