- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2013

With a highly anticipated third round of nuclear talks opening Thursday in Geneva, Iran appears sharply divided on whether it truly wants to work with world powers to resolve tensions that have long surrounded its disputed nuclear program.

Iran’s foreign minister has made headlines by claiming a deal with West was “possible” as early as the end of this week. But such assertions have been undercut by feverish and standoffish rhetoric from more hard-line officials in the Islamic republic.

Anti-Western sentiment appeared to be running high this week in Tehran, where protesters on Monday burned U.S. flags and chanted “death to America” outside the former U.S. Embassy.

The demonstration was held — as it is annually — to mark the anniversary of the hostile takeover of the embassy following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Relations have been sour between the two countries ever since.

But recent diplomatic overtures by the Obama administration toward Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani — a man most international observers deem a moderate — have breathed new life into the prospect of peaceful dialogue between the two nations.

Such prospects have remained dim over the decades because of Iran’s angry posturing toward Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region, and because the U.S. believes Iran may be secretly developing a nuclear bomb — something Iranian leaders have long disputed, claiming their nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes only.

The situation brightened last month, however, when Iran offered to scale back its uranium enrichment activities and open its nuclear program to inspection in exchange for the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions.

But it remains unclear whether hard-liners in Iran’s political system are on the same page as those doing the negotiating for the government.

Heading into Thursday’s talks, for instance, some in Tehran suggested that a deal with the West could be possible only if Washington is willing to move first by lifting some sanctions now — only if to send a message of reassurance to Iranian skeptics who believe that America’s real goal is to overthrow Iran’s government.

The deputy chief of staff of Iran’s military asserted Wednesday that Iran had adopted the first confidence-building measure by accepting to participate in the peace talks, and that the onus is now on Washington to build Tehran’s trust.

“If the U.S. says that it is not after the overthrow, it should prove it,” said Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri, according to a story published on the English-language website of Fars, Iran’s state-run news agency.

Fars also quoted the general as asserting that the U.S. should apologize to Iranians and “pay indemnity for the damage it has inflicted.”

The remarks seemed to expose how eager Iranian hard-liners are to suck the wind out of attempts by their more moderate colleagues to convey optimism ahead of this week’s talks in Geneva between Iran’s nuclear negotiators and the so-called P5+1 group — consisting of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members — the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia — plus Germany.

At a minimum, Mr. Jazayeri’s statements starkly contrast the narrative being pushed outside by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has since early last month played a central role in what many international observers describe as a charm offensive toward the West by the more moderate Rouhani government.

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