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Ahmadinejad, as economy falters, says he’s open to talks with West

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2012

Iran's president said Thursday that the Islamic republic is open to renewed talks with world powers about its nuclear program, as evidence mounted that fresh Western sanctions are beginning to bite the Iranian economy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has charged an Iranian microchip researcher with buying restricted U.S. lab equipment, a development likely to further roil U.S.-Iranian relations.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the European Union's new embargo on Iranian oil and sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran would have no effect on his country's economy.

But the central bank announced Thursday an official 8.5 percent devaluation of Iran's currency to 12,260 rials against the U.S. dollar. The move came a day after Mr. Ahmadinejad agreed to let interest rates rise from 12.5 percent to 21 percent in an effort to dissuade nervous Iranians from withdrawing their bank deposits.

Iran's currency crisis is widely seen as the result of Western sanctions.

Amid the economic distress, Mr. Ahmadinejad left the door open for new talks with the West, saying Iran has nothing to fear because it is "in the right."

"They claim that Iran doesn't want negotiations, but it isn't so," he said. "Every time they seek pretexts, and as we approach talks they issue resolutions so that perhaps negotiations don't take place."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is waiting for Iran's response to an October letter from the EU's foreign-policy chief calling for a resumption of talks.

"Just saying you're open for talks doesn't meet the criteria that we have set," Ms. Nuland said.

In Tehran, Iranian lawmakers threatened Thursday to pre-empt the EU move by ending oil exports to Europe immediately rather than on July 1, when the embargo is set to take full effect.

The phased-in nature of the EU embargo was meant to ease the blow to already troubled economies such as Greece, Italy and Spain that depend heavily on Iranian crude imports.

The EU's move followed the U.S. imposition of sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, the main conduit for the Islamic republic's oil transactions, which account for more than half of the regime's revenue.

In recent weeks, Iranian officials have amped up their rhetoric, threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world's crude oil is transported.

"Iran will never allow itself to be in a situation in which it cannot sell oil but other regional states can," said Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to the Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Thursday on Iran's state-run Press TV.

The Associated Press reported that prison records show the U.S. is holding Seyed Mojtaba Atarodi, 54, a microchip expert and assistant professor at Tehran's prestigious Sharif University of Technology, in a federal facility in Dublin, Calif., outside San Francisco.

The Iranian interests section in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington said it is aware of the arrest.

U.S. law enforcement officials have declined to discuss any aspect of Mr. Atarodi's case, and records indicate the charges have been sealed.

But a Sharif University spokesman said he has been charged with buying instruments from the United States, the AP reported.

The university official spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the potential repercussions of the case.

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