- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Iranian hard-liners, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, faced a dilemma of their own after yesterday’s announcement by the Bush administration that it was ready to join talks over Iran’s suspected nuclear programs.

The U.S. policy shift “will be seen as a victory for the tough line of the government,” said A. William Samii, an Iranian political analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “but it’s a tricky question of how best to respond.”

Ordinary Iranians are increasingly weary of the confrontation with the West over the nuclear programs, Mr. Samii said, but have been told repeatedly by the country’s conservative Islamic leaders that developing a nuclear capability is a matter of national honor and security.

If Washington’s presence in the talks produces a deal to suspend or terminate Iran’s nuclear programs, “there will be a lot of questions for the Iranian government,” Mr. Samii said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, briefing reporters yesterday, said bluntly that one motivation behind the U.S. decision was to test Tehran’s sincerity.

“It’s time to know whether Iran is serious about negotiations or not,” she said.

Iranian nuclear negotiators, backed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have rejected in recent months any suggestion that they suspend uranium enrichment while the talks proceed. Mr. Bush and Miss Rice said such a suspension was a precondition for U.S. participation in the talks.

In the first official reaction to the U.S. offer, Iran’s state-run news service called the proposal a “propaganda move.”

“It’s evident that the Islamic Republic of Iran only accepts proposals and conditions that meet the interests of the nation and the country,” the Islamic Republic News Agency said last night. “Halting enrichment definitely does not meet such interests.”

But Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and an Iranian foreign policy scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, cautioned, “You should never take Iran’s first reaction too seriously.”

Mr. Parsi praised the U.S. move but said the demand for a halt to uranium enrichment could tempt Tehran to put forward its own preconditions for talks.

However, the prospect of active U.S. participation in the talks could widen the differences within the Iranian regime over negotiating tactics and strategy, he added.

“When there was no credible offer on the table, the international pressure only united the different factions in the government,” he said. “That could change now.”

The uranium enrichment program remains a sensitive topic in Tehran. The Supreme National Security Council, the top security agency, has forbidden debate on the subject in the national press.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, a little-known figure before his surprise election in mid-2005, has carved out a major role in foreign policy in part by strongly backing the nuclear program. Ayatollah Khamenei, still the final arbiter of policy in Iran’s fractured political system, has backed the president’s uncompromising stand.

The supreme leader said earlier this week that “any retreat” on the nuclear issue would be a “100 percent loss.”

But other prominent figures, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former top security aide Hassan Rowhani, have publicly expressed doubts about the regime’s hard line in talks with France, Britain and Germany.

Iran insists its nuclear programs are for peaceful civilian use and says it has a right to such programs under international treaties.

Mr. Ahmadinejad and his allies have grown bolder in recent days, Iranian analysts say, reflecting what they say are increasing troubles Washington faces on other fronts.

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, on a visit to Malaysia this week, said the United States could not afford to “create a new crisis” in the region because of the difficult situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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