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US Rebuffs Iran Offer of Nuclear Talks

July 14, 2003

by Guy Dinmore
The Financial Times , 14 July 2003

Iran has indicated to the US it is ready to open direct talks about its nuclear programme, but US officials say the Bush administration is keeping the door closed.

The Iranian offer was presented as a first step towards tackling other contentious issues, such as terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tehran’s overtures have been conducted mainly through Mohammad Javad Zarif, its ambassador to the United Nations, in discussions with Americans in close contact with the Bush administration, including at least one former senior official. The Iranian leadership’s readiness to open a dialogue with the US was also conveyed by Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, in a recent visit to Washington. Switzerland represents US interests in Iran.

But although the US is actively seeking a dialogue with North Korea, a member of President George W. Bush’s declared “axis of evil”, and is engaged in talks with other “rogue states”, such as Libya and Syria, US officials say there is little appetite for negotiations with Iran.

“We are not reaching out at this point,” said a State Department official, adding that the matter was still under review.

Within the Bush administration some senior officials advocate “regime change” as its Iran policy, while a minority proposes engagement. But for now, the prevailing view is that the US has been effective in working with Europe and Japan to put economic pressure on Iran.

People in Tehran and Washington close to the Iranian government said Mr Zarif did not have the authority to propose a grand strategy of engagement with the ultimate aim of restoring diplomatic relations. But he is believed to have high-level backing for negotiations on an issue-by-issue basis, starting with the nuclear crisis.

How soon Iran can develop nuclear weapons is a question that troubles the US intelligence services. Some officials in Washington think it could take several years. But Daniel Ayalon, Israeli ambassador to Washington, says Israel has shortened its estimate.

“The point of no return – where they are on the verge or on the way to get nuclear capabilities – is much, much smaller now, could be even a matter of a year or so,” he told NBC television last week.

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