The Obama Administration and its allies will insist that Iran’s vague offer to open negotiations be followed quickly with concrete actions to slow or halt its nuclear program, a senior administration official said.
The official said an earlier Bush-era proposal of a "freeze for freeze" — under which Iran would stop expanding its program for six weeks and suspend it entirely at the end of that period in exchange for a pause in moving toward new sanctions against Iran — remains the "the proposal we have on the table."
Unlike the Bush Administration, the official said, the Obama Administration remains willing to talk to the Iranians without preconditions, and despite the fact that an the Iranian proposal was "not responsive" to American concerns about the nuclear program.
The American reluctance to soften the Bush Administration’s offer or to weaken the talks’ goals may also be intended by the administration as a signal to Congress — where key members have vowed to try to move through legislation next month that would impose crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran — that despite its willingness to negotiate, this Administration has verifiable deliverables it expects in return.
“For us, the measure is going to be: Are we affecting their nuclear program in a way that dramatically changes the path that it’s on?” the official said.
The “freeze for freeze” formula was first proposed by European foreign policy chief Javier Solana last July, and reiterated by American officials this April 8.
The official acknowledged that the formula has lost some of its bite, as Iran is now thought to have thousands of centrifuges which could continue to enrich uranium during the six-week freeze period. “The freeze obviously is not as meaningful as it would have been,” the official said. But the official said the U.S. will not accept a mere freeze on expansion as a final goal.
“The freeze for freeze is not an end in itself,” the official said. “The freeze for freeze is an interim step to suspension.”
The official offered new detail on what spokesmen for the White House and State Department said in response to Iran’s offer: That the opening is welcome, but that it must be followed by concrete action.
The official declined to offer a clear timeline for Iran to alter its behavior other than it should come soon. But another person briefed on the White House proposal said the administration expects a response from Iran by September 23 or 24, during the United Nations General Assembly.
"Certainly their willingness to talk about it is welcome," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told journalists aboard Air Force One en route to Minnesota Saturday. "I'll tell you this - we're not talking for talking’s sake. This may not be a topic they wanted to be brought up, but I can assure you that it's a topic that we'll bring up and the [group of nations negotiating with Iran, known as the] P5 + 1 will bring up. The Iranians have responsibilities to the international community to walk away from their ballistic nuclear weapons program. That's what the focus from our side will be in these talks, and that's our goal.''
Iran's offer of talks came in a five-page, written proposal delivered to ambassadors of the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia in Tehran by Iran's foreign minister earlier this week. The U.S. and European allies have said the Iranian proposal did not seriously address the international community's central concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Russia and China, however, said the Iranian offer made them disinclined to support additional sanctions at this time.
Another person briefed on the White House proposal said the administration expects a response from Iran by September 23 or 24, during the United Nations General Assembly.
“From the beginning of the Administration the president has made clear that we were prepared to engage the Iranians without conditions,” the official said. “Engagement wasn’t a strategy, it was as tool, and it was designed to see if by dealing directly with the Iranians we might be able to affect their behavior.”
“It was important to have them hear directly from us that there was a choice and there was no way to avoid a choice [between] one pathway that could offer a lot of promise for the future and another that could be very bleak,” the official said.
Many observers doubt Iran will accept a formula as stringent as “freeze for freeze,” which requires Iran stop its program after six weeks.
“They’re not going to take part in a freeze if the outcome after the freeze is already predetermined,” said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Counsel, which opposes sanctions.
And the official stressed that the White House won’t be satisfied with open-ended talks.
“If it becomes clear that the talks are aimed “to create a kind of cover where they’re talking but its just for the benefit of moving ahead with nuclear program, then that’s a process that won’t last very long,” the official said..
And if talks fail, the official said, the U.S. openness will have had “value in trying to draw others in and make others more supportive of us.”
-- Laura Rozen contributed to this report..