AP Exclusive: Iran letter shows ‘charm offensive’

VIENNA (AP) — A new Iranian offer to meet with the world powers is unusually short on preconditions and suggests Tehran may even be ready to touch on some nuclear issues that were previously taboo, according to the copy of a confidential letter from a senior Iranian official.

Shared with The Associated Press, the letter is short on details of what the Islamic Republic is ready to discuss with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. But it differs from previous negotiating offers by avoiding demands the six powers are bound to reject out of hand.

And it says Iran is “ready to cooperate in … nonproliferation and peaceful nuclear cooperation.” That’s a possible nod to six-power demands that the Islamic Republic address world concerns over its nuclear program, and suspicions that it could used to make weapons — something Tehran has refused to do in earlier meetings.

Compared to Iran’s previous offer, the letter, by chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, is notable in its moderate tone.

Western diplomats, however, characterized it Tuesday as part of Iran’s new “charm offensive” — an effort to derail plans to refer Tehran anew to the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear defiance.

Iran already is under four sets of Security Council sanctions for refusing to freeze uranium enrichment. Tehran says it needs the program to make reactor fuel but the council fears it could be re-engineered to produce fissile warhead material — despite Iranian insistence it has no such plans.

The Islamic Republic also has stonewalled International Atomic Energy Agency efforts to probe intelligence that it might be secretly experimenting with a nuclear weapons program. In its latest Iran report earlier this month, the IAEA for the first time said it is “increasingly concerned” about credible “extensive and comprehensive” intelligence suggesting that Iran continues its secret weapons work.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said Monday that he plans to share some of that intelligence with his agency’s 35-nation board, and diplomats say he will use his next report in November to detail his information on the allegations, including Iran’s suspected work on a nuclear warhead.

That report, in turn, could serve as a springboard for renewed IAEA referral to the Security Council, which first got involved in Iran’s nuclear file in 2006 after the Vienna-based agency reported Tehran for resuming uranium enrichment.

As word of such plans ripples through the IAEA, Iran has embarked on what appears to be a counteroffensive meant to blunt the Western-led efforts for new referral and possible new sanctions.

Tehran earlier this month invited a senior IAEA team to tour previously restricted nuclear sites, including a reactor under construction that will produce plutonium once finished. It has also signaled it is ready to discuss some of the nuclear weapons allegations against it. And it says it is willing to lift previous restrictions on IAEA monitoring of its nuclear program and place it under “full control” of the agency for five years if U.N. sanctions are lifted.

That condition is unlikely to be met if Tehran insists on continuing enrichment. While Amano has welcomed signs of more openness on the part of Tehran, he and Western diplomats say Iran has a long way to go to dispel suspicions of a nuclear cover-up masking potential weapons ambitions.

Jalili’s letter, dated Sept.6, does not really move Tehran further along that path, despite its more measured language and hint of a readiness to discuss nuclear issues.

Like previous correspondence from Iran it still insists that other vague topics — “economic fields, justice, development and international peace and security” be also brought to the table in any new negotiations.

More significantly, the letter suggests Iran remains dead-set against long-standing six-power demands to give up — or at least pause — in uranium enrichment.

Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and “any measures that would lead to deprivation of the NPT rights of a nation … is unacceptable,” it says, in an allusion to its refusal to budge on enrichment.

Addressed to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who acts as a spokeswoman for the six powers, the letter is in response to a July letter from her to Jalili setting out conditions under which the six are ready to resume discussion.

A senior diplomat familiar with that letter said that it urged Iran to enter nuclear discussions, even while repeating that Tehran’s interlocutors were ready to address some of Tehran’s non-nuclear concerns.

Jalili’s last letter sent to Ashton in May and also shared with the AP was quickly rejected by her and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as disappointing.

Back then, the Iranian negotiator proposed that a new round of talks focus on a host of issues including its rights as a nation, and even high-seas piracy, instead of international fears that over its nuclear program.

The last round of talks in January ended in failure, with Iranian negotiators fending off efforts by the other side to at least touch on Iran’s nuclear activities.

George Jahn can be contacted under http://twitter/com/georgejahn

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