Wall Street Journal: The Obama administration is preparing to communicate to Iran’s president-elect its desire to hold direct negotiations in the coming weeks over Tehran’s nuclear program, senior U.S. officials said. The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—The Obama administration is preparing to communicate to Iran’s president-elect its desire to hold direct negotiations in the coming weeks over Tehran’s nuclear program, senior U.S. officials said.
Since his election in June, Hasan Rouhani has sent positive signals both publicly and privately about his interest in engaging with the international community on the nuclear issue, according to Obama administration officials. Mr. Rouhani succeeds President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad early next month.
Senior U.S. officials are meeting with representatives of the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, on Tuesday in Brussels to map out their coordinated approach to Mr. Rouhani and Tehran, these administration officials said.
The White House is eager to quickly test Mr. Rouhani, an Iranian politician and Islamic cleric, to see if a diplomatic process can gain traction on his watch, according to U.S. officials.
Communications from Washington to Tehran have at times been sent through the office of Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, who heads the diplomatic bloc negotiating with Iran, called the P5+1.
“We are open to direct talks, and we want to reinforce this in any way [we can],” said a senior U.S. official who is set to take part in the Brussels meeting. “We do see words that indicate Iran might be going in a different direction. But we don’t know this yet,” the official said Friday.
The P5+1 is hoping to schedule a new round of negotiations with Iran by September, U.S. and European officials said.
Mr. Rouhani, since his surprise election as a relative moderate in Iran’s theocratic political system, has publicly stated his hopes to reinvigorate Tehran’s ties with the U.S. and Europe and end Iran’s economic isolation, brought on by mounting economic sanctions.
The new Iranian leader has said he is open to direct talks with Washington, but also stressed that Iran will continue producing nuclear fuel, which is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that require Tehran to stop.
“Wisdom tells us both countries, both nations, need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things,” Mr. Rouhani told reporters last month. “The rights of the Iranian nation, including nuclear rights, need to be recognized.”
Communicating with the White House through intermediaries, Mr. Rouhani has expressed a wish to bring more transparency to Iran’s nuclear work, according to people involved in the exchange. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog has been seeking access to facilities it believes may have been involved in atomic-weapons programs. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for civilian purposes.
U.S. officials are watching for one early signal about Iran’s intentions: The government’s choice of a chief nuclear negotiator. Saeed Jalili, the current negotiator, took a hard-line position during past talks and was seen as the virtual mouthpiece of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the ultimate decision maker on Iran’s nuclear work.
U.S. officials said they were surprised at the public attacks, during Iran’s recent presidential campaign, of Mr. Jalili’s negotiating record. They said this might suggest that Tehran is preparing to take a more accommodating line toward the P5+1 and U.S.
“They are arguing that Iran must adopt a more conciliatory approach if it wants to reverse Iran’s downward economic spiral and rebuild its international standing,” wrote Robert Einhorn, who recently stepped down as the State Department’s top nuclear adviser, in an article for Foreign Policy magazine.
U.S. officials said they are also still waiting for Tehran to formally respond to the diplomatic package the P5+1 presented to Mr. Jalili during the last round of negotiations in February in Kazakhstan.
This package included an easing of some sanctions against Iran’s minerals industry and financial system in return for Tehran ending its production of near weapons-grade nuclear fuel and agreeing to warehouse much of it outside the country. The P5+1 also is seeking to close Iran’s uranium-enrichment facility in the holy city of Qom, which is fortified in an underground bunker and has begun employing faster centrifuge machines.
Some European and U.S. officials have argued that the White House should signal to Mr. Rouhani a willingness to more aggressively ease sanctions in return for Tehran rolling back its nuclear program. They have also said the P5+1 should expand its dialogue with Iran to include issues like ending Syria’s civil war.
But the senior U.S. official said Friday that Iran needs to offer concrete responses to the previous offers made by the P5+1 in Almaty before any new package might be considered.
Tehran, despite Mr. Rouhani’s accommodating rhetoric, has continued to expand its nuclear program in recent months.
Iran has been installing and running more advanced centrifuge machines, called the IR-2, at the fuel production facilities at both Qom and the city of Natanz, said U.S. and U.N. officials. The machines are seen capable of tripling Iran’s production rate of nuclear fuel and drastically reduce the time it would need to break out and produce weapons-grade materials.
Iran appears committed for now to keep its total production of near weapons-grade uranium to below 250 kilograms (550 pounds), according to U.S. officials. This level represents the “red line” for military action set by Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, the Obama administration has worried that the new centrifuge machines would greatly enhance Tehran’s ability to make atomic weapons if Mr. Khamenei reverses this decision.
The senior U.S. official on Friday said Iran’s advance could force Washington to shorten the timeline for when it thinks Iran could produce a bomb. “One has to continuously be evaluating where the program is,” said the official.