By Paul Richter and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — Iran is preparing for a new round of negotiations about its disputed nuclear program after the U.S. presidential election determines whether Tehran will face a Republican administration that may have less patience than President Barack Obama’s for long-running efforts to reach a deal, according to diplomats close to the discussions.
Iran has balked at high-level talks since it met with six world powers in June in Moscow. But recently, it has signaled that it is ready to resume discussions in November in what could finally determine whether the diplomatic track can resolve a long standoff over the country’s nuclear ambitions.
U.S., Israeli and European officials believe Iran is close to acquiring the ability to make a nuclear bomb, including enough enriched uranium to make one possible. Both the U.S. and Israel have signaled that they could attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to prevent it from finally crossing the threshold to having a bomb. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last month that the world powers would need to halt Tehran by late next spring at the latest.
The White House on Saturday issued a statement denying that it had agreed to one-on-one talks with Tehran after the election. But it didn’t deny a report on The New York Times website that Iran had offered, for the first time, to engage in such talks with the United States after Nov. 6. The White House statement also noted that U.S. officials had said “from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”
It warned that the administration “will do what we must” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.
Analysts have speculated that Iran might be interested in negotiating with the Obama administration regardless of how the balloting turns out. If Obama wins, they will have to deal with him. If he loses, they may want to find out if he would offer a deal before the inauguration in January. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, has said he would have less patience with the diplomatic effort than Obama has had, although Romney has not spelled out specific policy differences.
News of the proposal for talks came as both Obama and Romney prepared for their third and final debate Monday, which is to focus on foreign policy.
Romney’s aides, who are generally hawkish on Iran, said they feared that the president may give up too much in talks. A GOP strategist said Saturday that Iran’s apparent initiative seemed like a tactic from North Korea, which has preferred a U.S. president who favors diplomacy “over confrontation against allied nations who are more hawkish.”
“Obama would be selling Europe down the river if he accepted the offer, and it would be a dream come true for the Iranian leadership to hold power, and maybe even get concessions on their nuclear program,” said the strategist, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
But in the debate, Romney may not want to appear to be condemning the idea of negotiations, for fear of opening himself to the charge that he is eager for another war at a time when many Americans are suffering deep war fatigue.
U.S. and foreign diplomats view Iran’s offer of talks with some wariness, since the Islamic Republic has long sought to drag out negotiations while it presses ahead with its enrichment of uranium that it potentially could use in a bomb. Yet Iran is under growing economic pressure because of Western sanctions that have cut its revenues from oil sales by $5 billion a month, greatly reduced the value of its currency and driven up the price of imports on which Iranians rely.
An Obama administration official said Iran was under more pressure than before because of the growing effects of sanctions, which have been ratcheted up sharply this year by the United States and the European Union.
“What’s true is that the context has changed because of the sanctions,” the official said. “Their currency has all but collapsed, and they’re under more pressure than ever before.”
Ray Takeyh, a former adviser to the Obama administration on Iran, said he expected that the Iranians, perhaps including the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “have been readying themselves” for talks with the United States after the election.
“Given his economic troubles and his attempt to impose his authority, I am not sure that Khamenei wants a war. He wants a number of seemingly contradictory things: an enlarged nuclear infrastructure, some relief from economic pressure and avoidance of conflict,” said Takeyh, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “Talks potentially offer him all of these things.”