Iran Open to U.S. Offer, Sees Feb. 25 Atomic Talks

Iran considers an offer to negotiate directly with the U.S. over its nuclear program a “step forward” and expects to resume meetings with world powers later this month, the Persian Gulf nation’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said.

Talks to defuse tension over Iran’s nuclear work will be held in Kazakhstan Feb. 25, Salehi said yesterday at the Munich Security Conference. The U.S. will offer bilateral negotiations if the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is prepared for “serious” discussions, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the day before at the same event.

“We have no such thing as red lines with bilateral negotiations with the U.S.,” Salehi said. “The leader has said it over and over, that negotiation with the U.S. has meaning only when it comes on equal footing.”

The Persian Gulf nation, under dozens of sanctions and a decade-long investigation, insists its nuclear program is peaceful. Israel and the U.S. say Iran is pursuing atomic weapons and haven’t ruled out military strikes against nuclear installations.

“No option should be removed from the table,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the same conference. “When we say it we mean it and we expect others to mean it as well.”

U.S. Strategy

The U.S. will do whatever it must to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her final interview before leaving office last week, underscoring one of the challenges facing her successor John Kerry.

While engagement remains a “central pillar” of the Obama administration’s strategy, “at some point the window for engagement has to close,” Clinton said, declining to give a specific deadline by which Iran must comply or face military consequences. She said maintaining “ambiguity” is beneficial in the negotiations.

Clinton also said there has been disagreement within the Iranian leadership on “how to maximize the leverage they have,” and when it’s “in their interest to settle” on talks. There’s political “jockeying” going on ahead of Iran’s elections in June, Clinton said in the Jan. 31 interview.

Clinton said U.S. sanctions have led to a sharp drop in Iranian oil exports. While Iran may be trying to dodge restrictions, she said, the U.S. is satisfied with compliance by nations such as China, India and Turkey that earned 180-day renewable exemptions by cutting purchases of Iranian crude.

She downplayed a media report that Iran’s oil exports rose in December, saying that monthly numbers shouldn’t be taken at “face value” because numerous factors are behind any figures.

Stalled Talks

The meeting in Kazakhstan would be the first round of talks since the breakdown of negotiations between Iran and the so- called P5+1 -- which includes China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- last June in Moscow. The sides had met for over a year without result before talks stalled. While Salehi said publicly that the Feb. 25 meeting in Kazakhstan will take place, the Iranians haven’t officially confirmed it with the P5+1, a U.S. official said yesterday, speaking anonymously to discuss diplomatic matters.

“When the Iranian supreme leader is serious, we have made it clear at the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership,” Biden said at the Munich conference. “We would not do it in secret. That offer stands. It is real and tangible.”

Fear of Failure

It is unlikely that Iranian negotiations with the U.S. and other powers will go anywhere over the next year, said Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, who sat on the panel with Salehi.

“These are good statements but there have to be some ideas about how to get them to the table in a credible way,” said Nasr, an Iranian-born adviser to the U.S. government. “What would be even worse would be to get them to the table and then see them fail.”

The Moscow talks broke down after the P5+1 urged Iran to stop nuclear work and shutter facilities while International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors cleared it of suspicion. Iran said it wanted broader regional-security issues, including violence in Syria and Bahrain, included on the agenda.

“No prudent person looks for conflict,” Salehi said. “We are for engagement but we value very dearly our independence. We are ready for engagement but only on an equal footing.”

‘Pussy Cat’

Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al- Faisal, criticized both Iranian and U.S. actions in the Middle East. Iran is “interfering” in Arab affairs while the U.S. is acting like a ‘‘pussy cat’’ in trying to resolve regional problems, he said.

“The only way we can reach a fair and workable solution to the issue is through a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction,” Turki said. “Sanctions against Iran are not enough. The zone free of weapons of mass destruction is the only way that we can deal fairly with this issue.”

A Middle East free of atomic, chemical and biological weapons would need to apply to all the region’s countries and would need to come with security guarantees from recognized nuclear powers, Turki said.

Israel neither confirms nor denies its reputed nuclear weapons arsenal.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Munich at jtirone@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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