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US, Iran signal possibility of resuming nuclear talks

Ahmadinejad’s remarks bring a walkout at UN

US and European diplomats left the UN General Assembly during a speech by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. US and European diplomats left the UN General Assembly during a speech by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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UNITED NATIONS — The issue of Iran’s nuclear program was little more than a footnote in President Obama’s wide-ranging, 35-minute speech before the United Nations yesterday. But behind the scenes, US and Iranian officials appeared to be engaging in preliminary efforts to reopen talks to resolve what many consider the greatest global threat: a nuclear-armed Iran.

“The door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it,’’ Obama said in his speech, devoting a mere 160 words to the Islamic Republic in his nearly 4,000-word speech. “But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program.’’

Publicly, Iran’s reaction was decidedly mixed.

Hours after Obama spoke, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran took the podium and railed against the United States, prompting US and European diplomats to walk out of the assembly hall. Ahmadinejad said that “a majority of the American people, as well as most nations and politicians around the world’’ believe that US officials orchestrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attack “to reverse the declining American economy and . . . save the Zionist regime.’’

But his speech also left the door open for negotiations.

Containing Iran’s nascent nuclear program, which Iranians insist is peaceful but which the United States believes is aimed at obtaining weapons, has been a major foreign policy priority of Obama’s administration since he entered office.

Last October, the Obama administration tried to negotiate a deal that would have called for Iran to send the bulk of its low-enriched uranium out of the country, in exchange for a small amount of highly enriched uranium for its medical research reactor. US officials hoped the deal would give Iran a face-saving way to stop enriching uranium, which can be used either for peaceful medical and energy purposes or as fuel for a nuclear weapon.

Iran initially appeared to agree to the deal, but then backed away, prompting Obama to turn toward new UN sanctions, passed in July. Now US officials hope tightening sanctions against Iranian banks and state-run enterprises measures aimed at cutting Iran off from the world financial system — will compel Iran to come back to the negotiating table.

“You have got to hand it to the Obama administration. They have done a very good job with the sanctions,’’ said Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank. “The question that Americans have to ask is: Can we raise the cost so high that the Iranians back down? . . . We’re not there yet.’’

Still, a slew of companies around the world are pulling out of Iran, giving the United States deeper leverage, according to Stuart Levey, the Treasury official at the helm of US sanctions, who has given a series of speeches portraying the sanctions as the best hope for stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

South Korea’s GS Engineering & Construction, Spain’s Repsol, and Italy’s Eni have all stepped away from contracts to develop Iran’s oil or natural gas fields due to the sanctions push, according to Reuters. Russia, a key arms supplier to Iran, announced this week that it had banned the sale of heavy weaponry, although Russia is still involved in Iran’s oil sector and in completing an Iranian nuclear power plant.

Companies are also halting the supply of gasoline to Iran, pressuring the Iranian government to remove subsidies, a move that could increase the price five-fold, according to Mostafa Beshkar, assistant professor of economics at University of New Hampshire.

But Beshkar said it is unclear if the sanctions will push Ahmadinejad’s government to make a deal with the West on the nuclear program, since Ahmadinejad’s more radical rivals in Iran have attacked him for being too conciliatory toward the United States and Europe.

“If Ahmadinejad’s government goes back to the negotiation table, he has competitors in Iran who might say that he is not competent because he cannot fight with the West,’’ Beshkar said.

At a breakfast with journalists Tuesday, Ahmadinejad said he expects talks to resume, but gave no sign that Iran is willing to budge on its right to enrich uranium.

“We have always been prepared to talk,’’ he told reporters.

In his UN speech yesterday, he said the nuclear swap deal is “still valid.’’

On Wednesday night, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters: “Our immediate focus is trying to get Iran to resume negotiations’’ with six world powers — the United States, Germany, China, Russia, France, and Britain. But Crowley said nothing had been agreed upon yet and there had been no direct contact between Iranians and US officials this week.

US officials are already working on a policy to contain Iran, should the effort to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons fail. This week, US officials are preparing to seek congressional approval to sell 209 Patriot missile interceptors to Kuwait, a high-altitude missile defense system to the United Arab Emirates, and F-15 combat aircraft and attack helicopters to Saudi Arabia.

But Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brooking Institution, a Washington-based think tank, who sometimes advises the State Department on Iran, said the weapons sale doesn’t “resolve the fundamental Iranian problem.’’

She is hoping the nuclear swap deal might be revived.

“This is the one place that they are willing to talk about the nuclear issue, and that’s not nothing,’’ she said.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.

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