Iranian Leaders Offer Nuclear Hope

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Walter Astrada / AFP / Getty

Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki

The beating of the war drums over Iran may get the most attention, but there are growing signs of progress toward a possible diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff. This week, the top foreign policy adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, declared that Iran could respond favorably to the latest deal offered by Western negotiators, which he described as acceptable "in principle." It remains unclear whether the unusual declaration by Ali Akbar Velayati, who served as Iran's foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, will translate into government policy. But in New York City on Tuesday, Iran's current foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, reinforced the impression that progress could be imminent in the long-running talks between Iran and the so-called 5+1 group, composed of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

In a wide-ranging interview with TIME and other media at Iran's U.N. mission in New York City, Mottaki was highly critical of the U.S., but he suggested that compromise might be reached on the nuclear issue. He called the latest nuclear proposal presented by European diplomats "constructive," adding, "We saw the potential for a new balance." The proposals involve Iran giving up its right to uranium enrichment in exchange for a package of political, economic and security incentives. The European negotiating team led by E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana has also added a "pre-negotiations" phase in which Iran would simply agree to refrain from expanding its current uranium-enrichment operations in exchange for the West holding off on further sanctions against Tehran.

Mottaki emphatically predicted that neither Israel nor the U.S. would attack Iran, and suggested that the U.S. might be allowed to open a diplomatic interest section in Tehran — perhaps in exchange for permitting direct air links between New York City or Washington and Tehran.

In a 90-min. question-and-answer session over lunch, Mottaki said he expected that Tehran would respond to the latest package of nuclear proposals in a "couple of weeks." The package, presented by Solana's team two weeks ago, would begin with the "freeze for freeze" proposal — a six-week period during which the international community would refrain from imposing new sanctions on Iran, in return for Iran agreeing to stop adding new uranium-enriching centrifuges at its facility in Natanz. Unlike in previous proposals that failed to break the deadlock, Iran would not be required, at least during the preliminary talks, to halt enrichment altogether, as the Bush Administration has demanded.

The "freeze for freeze" plan is designed to prevent further escalation of the nuclear standoff, in which three rounds of U.N. sanctions and escalating rhetorical threats that have fueled war jitters and driven up oil prices have failed to budge Iran. Iranian officials had said before the latest offer was formally presented that any proposal that required them to end uranium enrichment as a condition for talks was "out of the question." At the New York City luncheon, however, Mottaki declined three opportunities to restate that position and suggested that Iran is weighing its options.

The public comments by Velayati, the Supreme Leader's foreign policy adviser, underscore a sense that the Tehran regime may be seriously debating the possibility of engaging with the Western offer. Velayati, known as a close confidant of Khamenei — the man who wields executive power in Iran — also took unmistakable aim at hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though without mentioning him by name. He warned that "[Iranian] officials ... should avoid illogical and provocative sloganeering. A certain declaration could cause us problems; we need to be careful not to make these declarations."

Velayati claimed that the Bush Administration and Israel hoped to isolate Iran and make the case for sanctions and even military action by demonstrating that Iran opposes diplomacy and negotiations. "Those who are agitating against our interests want that we reject the [latest] offer," he reasoned. "As a consequence, it is in our interests to accept it."

Mottaki, for his part, dismissed as "psychological warfare" recent speculation of an attack on Iran before the Bush Administration's term ends. Citing both Israel's troubled 2006 invasion of Lebanon and U.S. difficulties in Iraq, he was skeptical that either country is prepared to initiate another conflict. "The consequences of such an attack cannot be predicted," he said, expressing doubt that American public opinion would be "willing to accept another attack."

Iranian officials present during Mottaki's remarks stressed that the foreign minister was trying to strike a positive note, while not backing off from any of his government's long-held positions. For years Iran has suggested it was ready for compromise, only to adopt hard-line positions as it moved ahead on a nuclear program that could give it the means to build atomic weapons. But in New York City, Mottaki seemed to encourage rapprochement, urging more "people to people" exchanges between the U.S. and Iran and saying "proposals for direct flights as well as an interest section can be examined by both sides." On the other hand, he dampened expectations that a long-delayed fourth round of direct talks on Iraq's security between the U.S. and Iran in Baghdad will be held anytime soon. He said that Iran had been disappointed by past sessions and believed Washington was not taking the talks seriously.

Asked whether Iran would oppose the government of Iraq if it signed a controversial security agreement enabling a long-term U.S. military presence in the country, Mottaki predicted that Iraqi leaders would never sign such a deal.

The possibility therefore looms of progress on the nuclear issue, but it's not yet the kind of breakthrough that might quiet Washington's hawkish critics of Iran. Still, if the Iranians do opt for some initial compromises, the debate is sure to become more complicated.