April 15, 2008
TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's president on Wednesday sent the clearest signal yet that the Islamic Republic wants warmer ties with the U.S., just one day after Washington spoke of new strategies to address the country's disputed nuclear program. Taken together, the developments indicate that the longtime adversaries are seeking ways to return to the negotiating table and ease a nearly 30-year-old diplomatic standoff.
President Barack Obama's administration has sought to start a dialogue with Iran — a departure from the Bush administration's tough talk.
Iran had mostly dismissed the overtures, continuing to take hard-line steps like putting an American journalist on trial on espionage allegations.
But in his speech Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad changed his tone, saying that Iran was preparing new proposals aimed at breaking an impasse with the West over its nuclear program.
"The Iranian nation is a generous nation. It may forget the past and start a new era, but any country speaking on the basis of selfishness will get the same response the Iranian nation gave to Mr. Bush," Ahmadinejad told thousands in the southeastern city of Kerman.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed Ahmadinejad's comments during a meeting Wednesday with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
"With respect to the latest speeches and remarks out of Iran, we welcome dialogue," Clinton said. "We've been saying that we are looking to have an engagement with Iran, but we haven't seen anything that would amount to any kind of proposal at all."
She said the six nations trying to lure Iran back to the negotiating table would have more to say in the coming days. Those countries, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, asked Solana last week to invite Iran to a new round of talks.
Solana said Iran has not formally responded to the invitation, and he declined to comment on Ahmadinejad's remarks.
The U.S. government has declined to publicly discuss possible new strategies for dealing with Iran. The Obama administration said its immediate goal is to get Iran back to nuclear negotiations.
Though there have not been any concrete breakthroughs, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iranian affairs expert at New York's Syracuse University, said Ahmadinejad's comments were a "good omen."
"It certainly signals interest in engaging with the Obama administration," he said, adding that no terms had been set for possible talks.
Iran's uranium enrichment program has been the key point of contention. The Bush administration had insisted that Iran scrap enrichment before talks could begin — a demand Iran repeatedly rejected. On Wednesday, a senior official said the U.S. would be prepared to let Tehran continue enriching uranium at the current level for some time.
Uranium enrichment can be used to produce fuel for nuclear energy or nuclear weapons. The U.S. and some of its allies accuse Tehran of seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charges, saying its nuclear program is geared toward generating electricity.
There had been a few efforts in recent years to reach consensus, but they appeared to go nowhere.
Two years ago, Washington briefly softened its position, and its negotiating partners told Tehran that they could accept a continuation of enrichment for a limited time as they moved toward talks. But Iran insisted it be allowed to enrich as part of its rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, ending the effort.
A decision by the U.S. to return to the negotiating table last year also did not bear fruit.
But Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said, "circumstances have changed" — an apparent reference to Obama's election and Iran's own progress in its nuclear program since talks with world powers last year.
Iran says it now controls the entire cycle for producing nuclear fuel — including extracting uranium ore and enriching it.
Ahmadinejad said Iran welcomes dialogue provided it is based on justice and respect, suggesting the West should not try to force it to halt enrichment.
"Today we are preparing a new package. Once it becomes ready, we will present that package (to you)," the president said. "It is a package that constitutes peace and justice throughout the globe and also respects other nations' rights." He didn't elaborate.
The U.S. and Iran broke off diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by hard-line students. Relations became rockier under the Bush administration, which branded Iran part of an "Axis of Evil" along with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea.
Part of the softening could be tied to the June re-election bid by Ahmadinejad, whose popularity has been declining. His main opponent favors better ties with the United States.
It is unclear, however, whether Ahmadinejad even has the clout to build a new relationship with the U.S. Just last month, Iran's supreme leader — who has the final say on all state matters — abruptly dismissed Obama's offer for dialogue.
"After 30 years, this won't be a matter resolved in a month or two. Any negotiations on the nuclear issue with Iran will take at least one year to work out," Boroujerdi said.
Associated Press Writers Anna Johnson in Cairo and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.