TEHRAN - Iran's president took an unusually soft tone toward the United States yesterday, saying a new US intelligence report marks an opportunity to resolve US-Iranian differences. But he said Washington must take further steps, including dropping nuclear sanctions.
The conciliatory line appeared aimed at deflecting Washington's attempts to win further sanctions against Iran and bringing the United States into negotiations after the intelligence report found that Tehran ended a nuclear weapons program four years ago.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may also be trying to fend off critics at home who have accused him of provoking Iran's enemies with his fiery rhetoric. Ahead of Ahmadinejad's news conference, one of his top critics - Hasan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator and a powerful figure in Iran's leadership - made his harshest criticism yet of the president, saying his government had failed on foreign policy.
The United States brushed off Ahmadinejad's comments, saying Iran must abide by UN demands that it suspend uranium enrichment.
"We totally agree with the Iranian president. One or two more steps are needed. Let's start with Iran suspending its uranium enrichment process," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
He also said Iran should halt its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, "and then we can go from there."
Yesterday, diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany held a 90-minute conference call to discuss a draft plan for new sanctions, but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it was still too early to talk about an agreement. Russia and China were questioning the need for sanctions even before the US intelligence report.
President Bush insisted that "Iran is dangerous," pointing to the report's conclusion that Tehran once was seeking a nuclear weapon. "Iran must explain to the world why they had such a program," he said.
The US intelligence assessment, released last week, found that Iran ended a program to develop a nuclear weapon in 2003 and does not appear to have resumed it since. Tehran insists its nuclear activities aim only to generate electricity.
Ahmadinejad offered little new substance in his comments yesterday - but he avoided the inflammatory rhetoric that he has often used in the past toward Washington. Instead, he held out promise that Iran and the United States could end their numerous disputes, even over Israel, Iran's top enemy in the region.
Ahmadinejad praised the US intelligence report, calling it "a step forward."
"If one or two other steps are taken, the issues we have in front of us will be entirely different and will lose their complexity, and the way will be open for the resolution of basic issues in the region and in dealings between the two sides," Ahmadinejad said.
"A good opportunity is available right now and that opportunity has to be used well," he said, calling on the West to "change behaviors."
He said one further step by the United States would be to declare that "the nuclear issue is terminated," adding that in light of the report there was no need for further sanctions nor "any reason for continuation of hostilities."
Gary Sick, professor of international affairs at Columbia University and a former adviser to the National Security Council, said although Ahmadinejad appears to be dropping his usual confrontational tone, it was difficult to gauge his intentions.
"This does appear to be a departure from his usual line, which tends to be confrontational and not at all conciliatory," Sick said. "Ahmadinejad believes that he is in fact promoting an opening to the United States and actually promoting some kind of reconciliation."
Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said Ahmadinejad is betting that Washington will have to take a more moderate stance in light of the new intelligence.
"I think he's trying to encourage that," Nasr said. "It's US policy that's in trouble. Iran is not about to change its policy and Iran feels less pressure to be belligerent. Consequently, the pressure is on the US to try to deal with Iran differently."
Ahmadinejad is also trying to fend off criticism at home, said Iranian political analyst Leila Chamankhah, of Tehran University.
"Ahmadinejad has come under greater pressures from his critics and even conservatives. He is resorting to a more moderate tone to silence his opponents," Chamankhah said.