Iran Gingerly Signaling New Willingness to Engage With U.S.

The Americans once took the initiative in seeking talks on Iran's nuclear program. Now Ahmadinejad seems to be lowering the rejection threshold.

"It was March 2004. Mohamed ElBaradei [then chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency] told me he wanted to come to Tehran, and he arrived quickly. I thought he had come to talk about nuclear issues, but he wanted to talk to me privately. He told me he had visited Washington a week earlier and had told President [George W.] Bush that the United States had to enter direct negotiations with Iran on nuclear issues.

"Bush answered him: 'Why only nuclear issues? Why shouldn't we solve all the problems between us? I don't know who has supreme authority in Iran, but if someone with authority to close deals comes to Washington, I will conduct the negotiations personally.' ElBaradei said this was a good opportunity, and someone with authority should be sent to Washington."

"Was the request accepted?"

"At the time, the regime had decided not to conduct negotiations with the United States."

"That is, the Americans took the first step?" "Yes."

The above is part of a fascinating interview with Hassan Rohani in the Iranian monthly Mehrnameh upon the publication of his new book, "Iran's National Security Strategy." Rohani was the head of Iran's National Security Council during the presidencies of Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He was also a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the chief negotiator with the West on nuclear issues from 2003 to 2005.

Currently Rohani is on the National Security Council, the Expediency Discernment Council and the Assembly of Experts. The latter two are very important policy-making bodies; according to Iranian media reports, Khamenei sent Rohani to Vienna in March to prepare the Istanbul summit.

In the interview, Rohani reveals that in 2006 (a year after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power ), he spoke with Joschka Fischer after Fischer had completed his term as Germany's foreign minister. Fischer told him it was the Americans who had blocked the agreement between the European countries and Iran on the uranium enrichment site at Isfahan.

"I'm certain we could have reached an agreement on the Isfahan installation, but the Americans were the obstacle," Rohani says. "They didn't take part in the negotiations and they applied pressure from afar."

It might not be much of a coincidence that this interview was granted this month, before the Baghdad talks. It seems the Iranians want to make clear that Ahmadinejad is responsible for the change in the Iranian position toward the United States (as opposed to his predecessor Khatami ). They also want to underline another recent change: Iran's willingness for the United States to take part in the dialogue.

Conciliatory Iranians

The Rohani interview was preceded by statements by Rafsanjani, who in a separate interview said that in his day he had proposed direct talks with the United States, but Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rejected the proposal. Now it seems Iran is trying to signal the beginning of a change in atmosphere, and Khamenei is conducting the talks. He's the one who will set the "rejection threshold" with the United States.

A fascinating part of the Rohani interview deals with the decision to renew the nuclear program after it was suspended by Khatami between 2003 and 2005. It emerges that the impetus to resume the project came from the country's Atomic Energy Organization, which was always keen to act.

"So when the activity was stopped they had a problem," Rohani says. "Their approach was that Iran had to complete the work. The disagreement was on the question of whether they were even able to complete the work they had begun. Since at the time we had only taken our first steps and didn't have any experience, the organization aspired to prove it was up to the task.

"But it had opponents. I remember that a group of physics professors told me that Iran wasn't capable of completing the nuclear fuel production cycle. They explained that the people working on the project were students of theirs and believed it was possible [to produce nuclear fuel]. The people from the Atomic Energy Organization knew about the opposition, so they pushed hard to prove themselves. But they didn't want the issue to reach the [UN] Security Council."

Rohani was surprised by the international reaction at the time, especially that of the European countries, which moved quickly to bring the issue up for discussion at the Security Council.

"They knew in advance that we were about to renew operations at the Isfahan site, and this had no connection to Ahmadinejad," Rohani says. "The project went back online in April 2005, whereas Ahmadinejad came to power only in August that year. We informed the Europeans, who didn't see any problem, while the Americans didn't want to react until it became clear who the new president would be."

It would be interesting to know what would have happened had the talks with the United States begun back in Bush's day. It will be equally interesting to know what Ahmadinejad will say about Rohani's positions.

Mohamed ElBaradei - AP - May 30, 2012