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Iran's desire for direct talks with US signals strategic shift

Leader's letter said followed by further requests

TEHRAN -- Iran has followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent letter to President Bush with explicit requests for direct talks on its nuclear program, according to US officials, Iranian analysts, and foreign diplomats.

The eagerness for talks demonstrates a profound change in Iran's political orthodoxy, emphatically erasing a taboo against contact with Washington that has both defined and confined Tehran's public foreign policy for more than a quarter-century, they said.

Though the Tehran government in the past has routinely jailed its citizens on charges of contact with the country it calls the ``Great Satan," Ahmadinejad's May 8 letter was implicitly endorsed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and lavished with praise by perhaps the most conservative ayatollah in the theocratic government.

``You know, two months ago nobody would believe that Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad together would be trying to get George W. Bush to begin negotiations," said Saeed Laylaz, a former government official and prominent analyst in Tehran. ``This is a sign of changing stratagy."

Laylaz and several diplomats said senior Iranian officials have asked a multitude of intermediaries to pass word to Washington making clear their appetite for direct talks. He said Ali Larijani, chairman of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, passed that message to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who arrived in Washington yesterday for talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. Iranian officials made similar requests through Indonesia, Kuwait, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Laylaz said. American intelligence analysts also say Larijani's urgent requests for meetings with senior officials in France and Germany appear to be part of a bid for dialogue with Washington.

``They've been desperate to do it," said a European diplomat in Tehran.

US intelligence analysts have assessed the letter as a major overture, an appraisal shared by analysts and foreign diplomats residing in Iran. Bush administration officials have dismissed the offered opening as a tactical move.

The administration repeatedly has rejected talks, saying Iran must continue to negotiate with the three European powers that have led nuclear diplomacy since the Iranian nuclear program emerged from the shadows in 2002. Within hours of receiving Ahmadinejad's letter, Rice dismissed it as containing nothing new.

But US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said government specialists have exerted mounting pressure on the Bush administration to reply to the letter, seconding public urgings from commentators and former officials.

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