Yet Tehran has declared its disinterest in negotiating with Washington, and proposals that it suspend uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities -- on which the United States conditioned its participation -- probably will be rejected. Tehran may believe that it has made irreversible progress and it can withstand international sanctions, but Iranian officials have painted themselves into a corner through repeated appeals to nationalism on the nuclear issue. If Tehran reverses course now, it will be difficult to explain that reversal to the Iranian people.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 31 called on Tehran to "immediately" suspend its uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities, cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Rice mentioned greater economic cooperation as an incentive, as well as a continuing reliance on diplomacy to resolve the issue.
As soon as Iran fulfills these conditions, Rice said, "the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives." The U.S. message was conveyed to the Iranian government through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran and through the Iranian representative at the United Nations.
Iranian state radio on May 31 described the U.S. overture as a victory for Iran, asserting that "Washington is under immense pressure by the American elite and other governments to hold negotiations with Iran."
"Although it was difficult for the American authorities to shift their policies and they are severely under the influence of the Zionist lobby in their decisions, the fact that they agreed to enter talks with Iran is a clear sign that their previous allegations against Iran were untrue," the broadcaster continued.
State radio concluded by saying Washington must accept Iran's decisive regional role because of Tehran's nuclear achievements, its national solidarity, and its economic progress.
The rapporteur for the legislature's national-security and foreign policy committee, Kazem Jalali, called Washington's initial impulse a positive development, ISNA reported. But Jalali warned that its preconditions are unsuitable, adding that the suspension of enrichment activities is out of the question.
A June 1 headline in "Kayhan," the daily newspaper associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office, announced the offer as "America's Need Under The Mantle Of A Concession To Iran."
Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on June 1 rejected Rice's proposal as nothing new, according to Radio Farda. Describing Rice's statement as "ramblings," Mottaki accused Washington of trying "to cover up [U.S.] crimes in Iraq."
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on June 1 that there are no obstacles to such talks if they take place without preconditions, IRNA reported. He added that the U.S. proposal included nothing new and fails to respect Iran's rights under the NPT. The spokesman also responded to Rice's charge that Iran supports terrorism, saying the terrorism issue turns a spotlight on U.S. relations with Israel and Washington's reactions to what he called Israeli crimes against Palestinians.
State media remained seemingly unimpressed by the U.S. offer. The director of the government's Islamic Republic News Agency, Ahmad Khademolmelleh, accused U.S. officials of using their influence over global media to "play games" in an effort to divert world public opinion from the realities of Iran's peaceful nuclear program. A state-television commentator said the U.S. preconditions bespeak a lack of seriousness about possible negotiations. Washington, he said, is merely "trying to convince others that it has shown flexibility."
Iranian commentators and political officials are likely to formulate their own responses after the Tehran Friday Prayers sermon of June 2 clarifies the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Malaysia on May 30 that Iran is ready to resume nuclear negotiations with Europe but is not interested in direct talks with the United States. He cited what he dubbed "the bad temperament of the Americans," according to AFP. ITAR-TASS quoted Mottaki as saying that Iran is willing to hold talks with Washington once the U.S. attitude changes.
'Carrots And Sticks'
In Vienna, meanwhile, the 5+1 group has agreed on a package of "carrots and sticks" intended to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said on June 1 that the parties to the agreement "believe [the proposals] offer Iran the chance to reach a negotiated agreement based on cooperation," according to Reuters.
Beckett went on to say that efforts to bring punitive action against Iran in the UN Security Council will be suspended if Tehran complies with IAEA demands that it suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. On the other hand, she warned, "further steps" will be taken if Iran fails to take the desired steps. Possible sanctions described by AFP on May 30 include an embargo on goods relating to Iran's nuclear and missile programs, travel restrictions for associated individuals, and a ban on Iranians studying these fields. There also could be travel freezes for Iranian officials and the blocking of assets belonging to the regime and its officials.
Iranian officials have repeatedly asserted that they will not forego uranium enrichment. Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi said on May 30 that the six countries meeting in Vienna on June 1 should not expect Iran to do anything beyond that which is required by the NPT. He said Iran will not suspend its nuclear research -- which is how Iran defines its relatively limited uranium-enrichment activities. Iran currently has a cascade of 164 centrifuges, and Assefi noted that in some cases 3,000 centrifuges are used for research. Assefi also noted that Iran does not recognize international limits on the percentage to which it may enrich uranium.
Supreme Leader Khamenei told legislators in a May 28 speech that Iranian scientists' accomplishments in the nuclear field have guaranteed the country's energy supplies. Any reversals in this field will be a complete loss for Iran, he said, as he praised the legislature's approval of a bill to halt voluntary suspension of enrichment activities if Iran is referred to the UN Security Council.