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Iran: Tehran Reportedly Offered To Talk To U.S. Over Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism

The British "Financial Times" daily reported on 17 March that Iran in May 2003 offered to hold talks with the United States on nuclear weapons and terrorism. The paper claims Washington has not yet responded to the offer because of deep divisions within the administration of George W. Bush. Tehran has yet to react to the newspaper article, prompting doubts about whether the Iranian offer was in fact made, and why.

Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The "Financial Times" reported that Iran's offer was first communicated to the U.S. State Department via the so-called Swiss channel on 4 May last year. The Swiss Embassy in Tehran represents U.S. interest in Iran.

The terms of the reported offer stated that Iran would address U.S. concerns over nuclear weapons and terrorism. It would also coordinate policy on Iraq and consider a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In return, Iran would have sanctions lifted, its security interests would be recognized, and the United States would drop the term "regime change" from its official lexicon. The reported proposal also foresaw the eventual re-establishment of bilateral relations.

"The Iranians know very well, through all kinds of channels and public statements, what our problems are in the relationship. So I don't think anybody needs to have a conversation with the Iranians, because they know what the problem is."
Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic ties since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent Iranian hostage crisis. Tensions grew even more heated in early 2002, when Bush famously included Iran as part of the "axis of evil."

The proposal outlined in the "Financial Times" would appear to touch on areas of major U.S. concern. Washington is worried that Iran is pursuing its nuclear program for nonpeaceful purposes, and has pushed for the United Nations Security Council to take up the issue and possibly impose sanctions.

Hard-liners in Iran publicly reject any hint of rapprochement with the United States. But Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, says he is not surprised by the report. Zibakalam says even hard-liners now accept that hostilities between Tehran and Washington must gradually subside -- if only to avoid military consequences.

"Because of the case of Iraq, the case of Afghanistan, these cases have demonstrated that the U.S. is prepared to take unilateral decisions without actually having to go through the United Nations or taking the world opinion along with her. So these realities have been realized by even the hard-liners in Iran," Zibakalam told RFE/RL.

Quoting U.S. officials and go-betweens, the "Financial Times" says political hawks in the Bush administration have resisted the proposed talks. The paper says Washington has offered no formal response to the reported invitation. The United States also reportedly chided the Swiss Foreign Ministry for "overstepping" its mandate and passing the Iranian offer to Washington.

Piruz Mojtahedzadeh is a professor of political geography at Tehran's Tarbiat Modaress University and chairman of the Urosevic research foundation in London. He says he believes Iranian officials likely offered the talks. But at the same time, he says, they may still be undecided on whether to seek better relations, and cites as an example their refusal to accept a U.S. delegation following the devastating Bam earthquake.

"Having seen the working of the Iranian diplomatic structure, it can happen. I mean, the possibility is there, given the background of the way they work, [but] what I see here is that certainly both governments seem not to be able to make up their mind, to be of a single mind what to do in this respect. If this report is correct and there was such an offer by the Iranians about 10 months ago, and later the same regime turned down an American offer it means that the Iranians also cannot make up their mind," Mojtahedzadeh told RFE/RL.

The Bam tragedy sparked hopes that "earthquake diplomacy" could lead to improved ties. Tehran rejected the delegation but did accept aid and a temporary lifting of sanctions.

Sadegh Zibakalam of Tehran University says Iran has always been ready to talk to the United States but is determined to see its conditions are met. "As far as I can tell, Iran always made it clear that if the United States is prepared to accept an Islamic Iran, an independent Iran, and a powerful Iran, Iran doesn't see any objection. Iran doesn't see any reason why it cannot have full diplomatic relations with the United States. The problem is that many Iranian leaders, rightly or wrongly, believe that the United States is not sincere in its dealing with the Islamic regime." Zibakalam said.

Iran's Foreign Ministry yesterday denied media report that Iran had sent a message to Washington through the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). News agencies had reported that the IAEA head, Muhammad el-Baradei, had told top U.S. officials in Washington this week that Tehran is open to negotiations on its nuclear program but only if it is accompanied by normalization of bilateral ties. Reuters cited the IAEA chief as suggesting a U.S. dialogue with Tehran might help resolve the controversy over Iran's nuclear program.

The U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, yesterday dismissed the need for U.S. dialogue with Iran. In an interview with CNN, Rice said: "The Iranians know very well, through all kinds of channels and public statements, what our problems are in the relationship. So I don't think anybody needs to have a conversation with the Iranians, because they know what the problem is."

Rice said in addition to the nuclear issue, the United States is concerned by its belief Iran is harboring senior members of Al-Qaeda and by Iran's interference in Iraq.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.