TEHRAN, Iran – Iran has followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent letter to President Bush with explicit requests for direct talks on its nuclear program, according to U.S. officials, Iranian analysts and foreign diplomats.
The eagerness for talks demonstrates a profound change in Iran’s political orthodoxy, emphatically erasing a taboo against contact with Washington that has both defined and confined Tehran’s public foreign policy for more than a quarter-century, they said.
Though the Tehran government in the past has routinely jailed its citizens on charges of contact with the country it calls the “Great Satan,” Ahmadinejad’s May 8 letter was implicitly endorsed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“You know, two months ago nobody would believe that Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad together would be trying to get George W. Bush to begin negotiations,” said Saeed Laylaz, a former government official and prominent analyst in Tehran. “This is a sign of changing strategy. They realize the situation is dangerous and they should not waste time, that they should reach out.”
Laylaz and several diplomats said senior Iranian officials have asked a multitude of intermediaries to pass word to Washington making clear their appetite for direct talks.
U.S. intelligence analysts have assessed the letter as a major overture, an appraisal shared by analysts and foreign diplomats resident in Iran. Bush administration officials, however, have dismissed the offered opening as a tactical move.
The administration repeatedly has rejected talks, saying Iran must continue to negotiate with the three European powers that have led nuclear diplomacy since the Iranian nuclear program emerged from the shadows in 2002. Within hours of receiving Ahmadinejad’s letter, Rice dismissed it as containing nothing new.
But U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said government experts have exerted mounting pressure on the Bush administration to reply to the letter.
Analysts, including American specialists on Iran, emphasized that the contents of the letter are less significant than its return address. No other Iranian president had attempted direct contact with his U.S. counterpart since the countries broke off diplomatic relations after student militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.