- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Obama administration, carrying out its campaign pledge to engage difficult regimes, 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 and Iran is in internal political turmoil.

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 announcement on a Friday afternoon by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley followed North Korea’s refusal to return to multilateral talks and Iran’s vague proposal for far-ranging negotiations with world powers.

Iran put forward the plan earlier this week in the aftermath of disputed presidential elections and mass protests that have undercut the legitimacy of the government and made U.S. engagement with Tehran even more politically sensitive and controversial. Iran was also facing Western pressure to begin negotiations before the end of this month or face new economic sanctions.

“We are seeking a meeting now based on the Iranian paper to see what Iran is prepared to do,” Mr. Crowley 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.”

Mr. Obama campaigned on a pledge to engage with Iran and has sent several overtures to the Iranian people and government including a message on the Persian New Year and two letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ayatollah Khamenei responded to at least one of the letters, The Washington Times has reported. The exchange took place before Iran’s June 12 presidential elections, which the regime says were won by incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but many Iranians believe were won by his chief opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

“The dilemma is that it took us 30 years to prepare ourselves to recognize the legitimacy of the Iranian government only to find out that the Iranian government is no longer legitimate,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In its five-page proposal, Iran said it was ready to “embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations,” but suggested that it sought a major change in regional security decisions and ignored the West’s main demand - that it come clean on its nuclear program and suspend enriching uranium.

U.S. and European officials said they 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.”

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief who has headed fruitless negotiations with Iran for more than five years, said Friday he was in contact with the Iranians to arrange a meeting “at the earliest possible opportunity.”

“We are all committed to meaningful negotiations with Iran to resolve the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program,” Mr. Solana said.

Mr. Crowley said a meeting would present a good opportunity to assess where Iran stands and how willing it is to talk seriously.

“If Iran refuses to negotiate seriously, we - the United States and the international community and the Security Council - can draw conclusions from that,” he said. “And then based on that, we’ll make some judgments in the future.”

Earlier Friday, Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that the Obama administration was “going to take the time that is necessary over the next days and couple of weeks to evaluate very carefully the Iranian response.”

Ms. Rice said the administration remained committed to diplomacy and engagement but noted - in an apparent reference to sanctions - that it also has other tools. She added that the disputed outcome of Iran’s presidential election has “added a layer of complexity to assessing the impact of these overtures and offers of diplomatic engagement.”

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 12 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.”

So far, none of Iran’s leaders has suggested that they are willing to compromise over the nuclear program or the disputed election. Several hundred people are still in jail and the government has reported that 36 people have died in clashes with security forces or in prison.

Ayatollah Khamenei warned opposition politicians Friday that they would face a harsh response if they drew a “sword” against the ruling establishment.

“Resisting the system and taking out the sword against the system will be followed by a harsh response,” Ayatollah Khamenei told worshippers in a sermon broadcast live on state television.

“If somebody stands against the basis of the [Islamic] system and violates people’s security, the system is forced to stand against it,” he said.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is expected to attend this month’s U.N. General Assembly in New York, where Iran’s nuclear program may dominate behind-the-scene deliberations and many Iranians and human rights advocates have promised to hold protest demonstrations.

Jim Walsh, a nuclear specialist at MIT, said that Iranian officials would likely accept the U.S. proposal for a meeting.

“We’ll find out in that meeting if there is anything to talk about,” he said. “The Iranians will have a chance to define what they mean and the ‘P5 plus 1’ [the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany] to press them further on the nuclear issue.”

Mr. Walsh, who has held meetings with both Iranian and North Korean officials and academics, said the U.S. decision was not an endorsement of either regime.

“We’ve held similar talks with China and Russia,” he said. “I doubt this will change the fundamental dynamics within Iran as it struggles with its leadership.”

Mr. Crowley said that no time and place for a meeting with North Korea has been set. Pyongyang has refused to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program and has insisted on meeting with the U.S. instead.

The Obama administration had resisted those demands, saying any meeting has to be “in the context of the six-party talks.” However, since an August visit by former President Bill Clinton to the North to free two American journalists held there for crossing illegally into the country, the administration has signaled a willingness to compromise.

“If a bilateral discussion will lead us back to a six-party process, then why would we not do that?” Mr. Crowley said.

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