A New Gesture From Iran?

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (front row center) sits with commanders from the Basij Militia in Tehran May 7

The White House has brushed aside a new letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush that was designed, according to a senior Iranian official, to offer "new ways for getting out of the current, fragile international situation," a reference to the impasse between the two countries over Iran's alleged drive to develop nuclear weapons.

The letter, a 17-page discourse on everything from religion to history and politics, was dismissed by Administration officials as a last-minute attempt by Iran to divide members of the U.N. Security Council, who are considering whether to impose sanctions on Iran. "This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But a second document, written by a top Iranian official and given to TIME just before Ahmadinejad's letter was made public, offers a more concrete foundation for negotiations to resolve the nuclear impasse. In the two-page memorandum, intended for publication in the West, Hassan Rohani,representative of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and Iran's former top nuclear negotiator, defends Iran's nuclear posture, decries American bullying, and puts forward a plan to remove the nuclear issue from the U.N. Security Council and return it to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, a long-standing Iranian goal.

The letter also offers some specific Iranian starting points for negotiation. Rohani said Iran would "consider ratifying the Additional Protocol, which provides for intrusive and snap inspections," and that it would also "address the question of preventing 'break-out'" — or abandonement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Independent nuclear experts consulted by TIME said these proposals were "hopeful" signs. p> However, on the key U.S. demand that Iran forgo uranium enrichment on its own soil, because of international fears the process would permit Tehran to develop weapons-grade fissile material, Rohani said Iran would agree only "to negotiate with the IAEA and states concerned about the scope and timing of its industrial-scale uranium enrichment." And while Rohani promised that "Iran would accept an IAEA verifiable cap on enrichment limit of reactor grade uranium" on Iranian territory, that would not meet the concerns of the U.S. and most of its European allies.

Rohani also pledged that "Iran would accept an IAEA verifiable cap on the production of UF6 — uranium hexafluoride, which is used for enrichment." Finally, Rohani promised that "Iran and the IAEA would agree on terms of the continuous presence of inspectors in Iran to verify credibly that no diversion takes place."

In Iran's shifting political alliances, Rohani , who was long associated with the reformist government of former President Mohammad Khatami. has often been classified as a "moderate." Ousted as Iran's chief negotiator last year by incoming hardline President Ahmadinejad, he has continued to speak out on nuclear issues, often arguing for a less confrontational line, while hewing to Iran's strategic goal of nuclear development, including the domestic enrichment opposed by the U.S. and its allies.

But his views carry weight, because Rohani, who served for 16 years as the top official at the SNSC, has been close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. "In the context of Iran's domestic politics, which is the driving force behind Iran's nuclear initiative, Rohani's proposals are significant because they have the imprimatur of the Supreme Leader, who would have approved them in advance," says William Samii, the longtime senior Iran analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

"The important, if implicit message to Washington in Rohani's declaration," says Samii, "is you may not like hardline President Ahmadinejad, but we do have more pragmatic leaders with concrete proposals, like Rohani, whom you have known for years, and whom you can deal with now if you want. His proposals amount to recognition of Washington's concerns. "

Other experts note there is still a long way to go toward a resolution of the impasse. "Rohani offers the possibility of heading off a confrontation that could end in military conflict," notes David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). "But Iran will have to give up more than what Rohani is offering to achieve a settlement, because the two sides are still far apart."

"Rohani recognizes that the international community has a problem with the domestic enrichment of uranium inside Iran — but he's offering steps to deal with that which are probably inadequate," Albright added. "On the other hand, there is a need for cooler heads on all sides right now, and Rohani's offer should be looked at seriously and explored to see if it is genuine and has the support of the Supreme Leader."

Senator Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted: "If this is Iran's position, there may be something to build on, but after two decades of deception, and outrageous threats from its president, Iran has to do much more than Rohani suggests to regain the world's trust. For our part, we should talk directly to Tehran, as we did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War."