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West keen to keep Iran channel open

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

UN foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Tehran on 14 June 2008
Mr Solana was on a charm offensive in Iran

They are not usually used to the limelight. In fact you might imagine them blinking as they emerge into the sunshine.

The political directors of the foreign policy departments of the great powers are the archetypal bureaucrats - more used to influencing policy behind closed doors, than appearing before the glare of television lights.

But in the stylish residence of the German ambassador to Iran, they took their place alongside the EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana, in what was, not for the first time in Tehran, a rather bizarre news conference.

The aim was to demonstrate the unity of the international community, in the face of Iran's nuclear programme. In the event, it showed rather the opposite.

Mr Solana's mission was to bring a new package of incentives, designed to encourage Iran to suspend the enrichment of uranium - the process the West fears could be used to make a nuclear bomb.

Diplomatic optimism

But while he was in the process of delicately explaining his offer to various Iranian officials, US President George W Bush jumped the gun, and announced that Iran had already rejected the package "out of hand".

In fact, as Mr Solana quietly explained later on, Iran has agreed to take away the ideas and think about them.

It was more than just a misunderstanding on Mr Bush's part.

What was so striking was the difference in tone. President Bush was quick to condemn the Iranian government at the earliest opportunity.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, centre, visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility on 8 April 2008
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran's nuclear intentions are peaceful

Mr Solana came full of diplomatic optimism, with a mission to charm and persuade the Iranians of the merits of this proposal.

Not that anyone ever expected any miracles.

The package brought to Tehran by Mr Solana includes a series of proposals designed to help Iran develop a civilian nuclear programme.

There are economic incentives as well. All available to Iran if it suspends the enrichment of uranium.

Direct talks

Mr Bush was quite correct that the Iranian government spokesman did announce, just as the talks were beginning, that Iran was not willing to accept that condition.

It is something that Iranian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or one of his officials probably repeats almost every day of the year. So it was not exactly a surprise.

And that was not the only flaw in this initiative.

The countries represented alongside Mr Solana were Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Nobody from the US.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, left, receives a package of incentives from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Tehran on 14 June 2008
Mr Solana is aware that a deal with Iran is not close

Washington does not hold direct talks with Tehran. Yet if there is a solution to this crisis, surely relations between Iran and the United States are pivotal.

Is it really credible to believe, as this offer proposes, that the US would co-operate in helping to build a nuclear reactor in Iran, while the many other arguments between the two countries remain?

Would the US Congress really vote money for the project, while American generals complain of Iranian weapons being used against their troops in Iraq, and Israel complains of Iranian rockets being delivered to Hamas and Hezbollah?

Equally, for any deal to be attractive to Iran, it would surely have to include the lifting of American economic sanctions, much more important than the relatively light UN embargo.

A commitment from Washington that regime change is not an option, would also be crucial.

Presidential change

When I put that issue to Mr Solana, he insisted that the nuclear question was the key - solve that and everything else follows.

But under the previous Iranian president, uranium enrichment was indeed suspended. It did not even lead to the solution of the nuclear crisis, let alone anything else.

Mr Solana and his team are under no illusions of this. One reason, perhaps, why they left after barely 24 hours in the Iranian capital.

This is not a promising time for a diplomatic initiative. But they want to keep the channels open. Even if Mr Ahmadinejad is not persuadable, perhaps his critics might be more amenable.

After all, it is not just America that is gearing up for a presidential election.

Mr Ahmadinejad also faces a tough battle for re-election in a year's time as well. So there could soon be different presidents in both Washington and Tehran.

And for the many governments, very seriously concerned about even the possibility that Iran might get a nuclear bomb, for the moment no-one seems to have any better ideas about how to proceed.





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