- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

The United States agreed Friday to hold direct talks with Iran and North Korea, even though both countries have so far refused to address Washington’s main concerns related to nuclear weapons.

While the negotiations with Iran are to be held together with five other major powers, those with North Korea will be bilateral, excluding Pyongyang’s neighbors and other regional players, the State Department said.

The Obama administration, along with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, has accepted Tehran’s new offer this week to begin talks but not the proposal’s substance, which does not address Iran’s nuclear program, spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.

“We are seeking a meeting now based on the Iranian paper to see what Iran is prepared to do,” he said. “Now we are willing to meet with Iran. We hope to meet with Iran. We want to see serious engagement on the nuclear issue, in particular.”

In its offer, Iran said it was ready to “embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations,” but it ignored the West’s main demand — that it come clean on its nuclear program and suspend enriching uranium.

U.S. and European officials hope that, once they sit down with the Iranians, they might be able to put the nuclear issue on the agenda.

“If we have talks, we will plan to bring up the nuclear issue,” Mr. Crowley said. “So we are seeking a meeting because, ultimately, the only way that we feel we are going to be able to resolve these issues is to have a meeting.”

President Obama promised during the campaign to engage Iran diplomatically and has sent two letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, The Washington Times has learned. But the policy has become more controversial in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed June 12 elections. The Iranian government has cracked down hard on protestors, jailing hundreds and killing at least 36.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said he understood the administration’s motives. “The strategy appears to be to put the ball back in Iran’s court as soon as possible,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Parsi — a longtime advocate of engagement who after the June elections urged a “tactical pause” in U.S. outreach — said, “The reality is that these are the worst circumstances for Iran and the United States to begin negotiations. Infighting continues in Iran. But if after 30 years, there is an agreement to come to the table and Iran wants to expand the agenda, at a minimum, the U.S. must make sure that human rights is discussed.”

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