A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said Mr. Obama would take stock of the Iranian program at a meeting of 20 top economic powers later this month in Pittsburgh and that the end of the calendar year was still the deadline for progress.
On the sanctions front, the official said the Obama administration had been meeting with allies to discuss ways to punish Iran if it continues to enrich uranium. “If the effort to affect Iranians through direct talks will not be productive, we have to prepare the ground so we would be in a position where we could move,” he said. While declining to give details, the official said that sanctions to this point have been “incremental” and that sanctions if talks failed would not be incremental.
Undersecretary of State William Burns will represent the U.S. in talks, to be conducted along with Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. Mr. Burns attended a session in Geneva in 2008 with Iranians, but Iran at the time was not ready for substantive negotiations with a lame-duck U.S. administration.
The senior U.S. official would not say how Mr. Obama would evaluate Iranian seriousness now.
“There has always been a basic assumption that this cannot be an open-ended process; we are not going to be talking for its own sake. How we evaluate the time is largely determined by Iranian behavior,” the official said.
He added that the president’s goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons, an obligation that eventually also would apply to Israel, was not linked to these negotiations.
The U.S. decision to meet with Iran has caused consternation among human rights advocates, who fear it will demoralize Iranians who have finally stood up to a government that has denied them many of the freedoms they sought in the revolution against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
“Right now, I can say most of the human rights and political activists in Iran are under tremendous pressure,” said Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
He noted that advisers to Mr. Mousavi and another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, have been arrested and said, “There are serious concerns that these leaders themselves could be arrested at any moment. Any offer or actual negotiation with the Iranian government at this time should not legitimize the criminal acts of the government in the postelection era. If these talks happen, the U.S. side should hold Iran accountable for grave human rights violations that have taken place.”
Mohsen Sazegara, a participant in the 1979 revolution who helped establish Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards but has since become a prominent dissident, also said the U.S. decision to seek a meeting with Iran would bolster an unpopular government.
The government wants to meet with the U.S. to “say to the people of Iran that we are legitimate and look, ‘President Obama is sending people to meet with us.’ They are saying to the people of Iran, who don’t think they are legitimate, that ‘America thinks we are legitimate.’ ”
Asked about human rights concerns, the U.S. official said, “At the end of the day, it is society in Iran that determines the legitimacy of the government. What is going on in Iran will determine how it is perceived. We are dealing here with a nuclear program that has to be dealt with. There is time pressure to handle this.”
“The clock is ticking, and the quick U.S. response may be an acknowledgment of the need to push the timeline,” said Jim Walsh, a proliferation specialist at MIT who has participated in talks with Iranian and North Korean officials and academics.
John Limbert, one of 52 Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran from 1979 to ‘81, also said the U.S. was right to offer to meet without preconditions.
“It’s always going to be the wrong time” to negotiate, said Mr. Limbert, author of a new book, “Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History.”