With Obama ready to talk, Iran must weigh options

DAVOS, Switzerland — President Barack Obama’s willingness to talk to Iran seems to have put the Iranian leadership in an uncomfortable spot.

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Here in Davos, the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, cautiously welcomed the new language coming out of Washington — before immediately insisting that it was not enough.

«We want to see practical steps before we decide whether we want to talk,» Mottaki said via a translator during an interview at the World Economic Forum.

«I don’t want to use the term condition,» he added. «We do not want to impose specific ideas. We want President Obama to say what exactly he is going to do.»

His remarks came three days after Obama told an Arabic-language TV network that the United States would extend a hand to Iran, which drew the retort from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran a day later that the United States should apologize for its actions toward his country over the past 60 years.

Meanwhile, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, a former president, entered the fray from Tehran, criticizing the U.S. administration for keeping all its options open in order to pressure Iran on its controversial nuclear program.

The reaction of Mottaki added to a sense among diplomats and foreign policy observers here that contrary to conventional wisdom — and the official Iranian stance — it was politically even more difficult for Iran to re-engage than for the United States, particularly five months before elections in Iran.

As John Chipman, director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, put it: «Obama seems to have called Iran’s bluff.»

Mottaki, a soft-spoken man with a reputation for staying on message, stopped short of making concrete demands on Washington. But he spoke of Iran’s desire to cooperate with the United States on regional issues like Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the Iranian economy is suffering a triple blow from economic sanctions, falling energy prices and the global credit crunch, he also hinted that Tehran wants the United States to lift some of the sanctions.

«We have a long history of some measures against Iran by the United States,» he said. «We want to see what kind of changes President Obama is going to make in those areas.»

But the pressure on Iran to make a favorable gesture to Obama is increasing. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on Friday called on Iran to respond to the U.S. opening.

«It’s good that Obama has reached out his hand and shown readiness for direct talks with Iran,» Steinmeier said. «I think it is time for us also to appeal to Iran and the Iranian leadership not to reject this hand.»

Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog in charge of keeping tabs on the Iranian nuclear program, said it was not surprising that the Iranians had not immediately responded favorably. «They want to know the modalities of the talks, the substance of the offer,» ElBaradei said. «Who will talk to whom? There are a lot of scenarios.»

But he also said that Iran dragged its feet at its own peril.

«I told the Iranians, you cannot just sit and wait,» ElBaradei said during a separate interview in Davos. «There is a hand that has been stretched out to you and you have to show that you are also able to stretch out your hand.»

For all the remaining distrust, comments on both sides indicated that the new administration in Washington had sown the seeds of a real shift in the relationship and opened the possibility of what ElBaradei called a «grand bargain,» covering not just the nuclear standoff but regional, security and trade issues as well.

One question is whether such a grand bargain could include permission for Iran to enrich uranium or not.

According to ElBaradei, the answer was for the two negotiating parties to determine, but he said the issue «has to be on the table.»

Unlike his predecessor, who described uranium enrichment as a red line, Obama has refrained from any mention of the subject. One senior U.S. foreign policy expert, who advises the State Department on Iran, suggested that enrichment was no longer the taboo it had been over the last eight years.

«If they allowed intrusive inspections, it is conceivable that this is part of a deal,» he said.

Mottaki, meanwhile, insisted that Iran would not budge on the subject.

«Enriching uranium for peaceful purposes is neither illegal nor can anybody stop it,» he said.

Asked how Obama should read the Iranian reaction to his offer so far, Mottaki said: «I personally consider President Obama an intelligent person and I think that he totally understands the questions.»

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DEL