Quoting unnamed "Obama administration officials" (not even "senior" ones!), the New York Times reported late Saturday that "The United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program." -- Other Obama administration officials, however, denied the report, saying that "It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections." -- Even the unnamed officials who made the claim "said they were uncertain whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort," Helene Cooper and Mark Landler said. -- Reuters reported that Iran offered a non-denial denial, saying that "We don't have any discussions or negotiations with America" -- but since the report was of an "agreement in principle" and not present discussions or negotiations, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi statement does not dispose of the article's claim. -- COMMENT: The Times hinted that the leaked news was calculated to make Republican challenger Mitt Romney appear in Monday night's debate to be "willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives." -- Since the report came from Obama administration officials, the leak could well be a calculated attempt to coax Romney into a appearing to be a warmonger. -- Even before the report in the Times, conservative funding guru Richard Viguerie's website on Friday claimed that President Obama has a "secret plan" to "cast Romney as a dangerous warmonger -- and it just might work -- especially with a liberal moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, on stage to help Obama push the debate in that direction." -- "The difficulty for Governor Romney will be that practically anything he says to contrast his policy with Obama’s will open the door to the charge that a vote for Romney is a vote for another war in the Middle East," George Rasley said....
U.S. OFFICIALS SAY IRAN HAS AGREED TO NUCLEAR TALKS
By Helene Cooper and Mark Landler
** Awaiting the Election -- Direct Negotiations, in Bid to Avert Attack, Would Be a First **
New York Times
October 21, 2012 (posted Oct. 20)
Section 1, Page 1
WASHINGTON -- The United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.
Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election, a senior administration official said, telling their American counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating.
News of the agreement -- a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term -- comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.
It has the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but it could pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy time.
It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Mr. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
The White House denied that a final agreement had been reached. “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said Saturday evening. He added, however, that the administration was open to such talks, and has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”
Reports of the agreement have circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran.
There is still a chance the initiative could fall through, even if Mr. Obama is re-elected. Iran has a history of using the promise of diplomacy to ease international pressure on it. In this case, American officials said they were uncertain whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort. The American understandings have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to him, an administration official said.
Even if the two sides sit down, American officials worry that Iran could prolong the negotiations to try to forestall military action and enable it to complete critical elements of its nuclear program, particularly at underground sites. Some American officials would like to limit the talks to Iran’s nuclear program, one official said, while Iran has indicated that it wants to broaden the agenda to include Syria, Bahrain, and other issues that have bedeviled relations between Iran and the United States since the American hostage crisis in 1979.
“We’ve always seen the nuclear issue as independent,” the administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “We’re not going to allow them to draw a linkage.”
The question of how best to deal with Iran has political ramifications for Mr. Romney as well. While he has accused Mr. Obama of weakness, he has given few specifics about what he would do differently.
Moreover, the prospect of one-on-one negotiations could put Mr. Romney in an awkward spot, since he has opposed allowing Iran to enrich uranium to any level -- a concession that experts say will probably figure in any deal on the nuclear program.
Beyond that, how Mr. Romney responds could signal how he would act if he becomes commander in chief. The danger of opposing such a diplomatic initiative is that it could make him look as if he is willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives.
“It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven’t had such discussions,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with Iran as under secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
Iran’s nuclear program “is the most difficult national security issue facing the United States,” Mr. Burns said, adding: “While we should preserve the use of force as a last resort, negotiating first with Iran makes sense. What are we going to do instead? Drive straight into a brick wall called war in 2013, and not try to talk to them?”
The administration, officials said, has begun an internal review at the State Department, the White House, and the Pentagon to determine what the United States’ negotiating stance should be, and what it would put in any offer. One option under consideration is “more for more” -- more restrictions on Iran’s enrichment activities in return for more easing of sanctions.
Israeli officials initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative. But when asked for a response on Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said the administration had not informed Israel, and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Mr. Oren said, “rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased.”
Direct talks would also have implications for an existing series of negotiations involving a coalition of major powers, including the United States. These countries have imposed sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but which Israel and many in the West believe is aimed at producing a weapon.
Dennis B. Ross, who oversaw Iran policy for the White House until early 2012, says one reason direct talks would make sense after the election is that the current major-power negotiations are bogged down in incremental efforts, which may not achieve a solution in time to prevent a military strike.
Mr. Ross said the United States could make Iran an “endgame proposal,” under which Tehran would be allowed to maintain a civil nuclear power industry. Such a deal would resolve, in one stroke, issues like Iran’s enrichment of uranium and the monitoring of its nuclear facilities.
Within the administration, there is debate over just how much uranium the United States would allow Iran to enrich inside the country. Among those involved in the deliberations, an official said, are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, two of her deputies -- William J. Burns and Wendy Sherman -- and key White House officials, including the national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and two of his lieutenants, Denis R. McDonough and Gary Samore.
Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium bears on another key difference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney: whether to tolerate Iran’s enrichment program short of producing a nuclear weapon, as long as inspectors can keep a close eye on it, versus prohibiting Iran from enriching uranium at all. Obama administration officials say they could imagine some circumstances under which low-level enrichment might be permitted; Mr. Romney has said that would be too risky.
But Mr. Romney’s position has shifted back and forth. In September, he told ABC News that his “red line” on Iran was the same as Mr. Obama’s -- that Iran may not have a nuclear weapon. But his campaign later edited its Web site to include the line, “Mitt Romney believes that it is unacceptable for Iran to possess nuclear weapons capability.”
For years, Iran has rejected one-on-one talks with the United States, reflecting what experts say are internal power struggles. A key tug of war is between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator and now the chairman of the Parliament.
Iran, which views its nuclear program as a vital national interest, has also shied away from direct negotiations because the ruling mullahs did not want to appear as if they were sitting down with a country they have long demonized as the Great Satan.
But economic pressure may be forcing their hand. In June, when the major powers met in Moscow, American officials say that Iran was desperate to stave off a crippling European oil embargo. After that failed, these officials now say, Iranian officials delivered a message that Tehran would be willing to hold direct talks.
In New York in September, Mr. Ahmadinejad hinted at the reasoning. “Experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the U.S. leading up to the national elections,” he said.
A senior American official said that the prospect of direct talks is why there has not been another meeting of the major-powers group on Iran.
In the meantime, pain from the sanctions has deepened. Iran’s currency, the rial, plummeted 40 percent in early October.
--David E. Sanger contributed reporting.
IRAN, LIKE U.S., DENIES PLAN FOR ONE-ON-ONE NUCLEAR TALKS
By Yeganeh Torbati
** Iran and U.S. both denyt plans for bilateral talks -- Both say they will pursue talks in wider P5+1 forum -- New York Times said talks to begin after election -- Obama and Romney to face off in foreign policy debate on Monday **
October 21, 2012
DUBAI -- Iran followed the United States on Sunday in denying that the two countries had scheduled direct bilateral negotiations on Iran's controversial nuclear program.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed U.S. administration officials, had said on Saturday that secret exchanges between U.S. and Iranian officials had yielded agreement "in principle" to hold one-on-one talks.
"We don't have any discussions or negotiations with America," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference. "The (nuclear) talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations. Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States."
The P5+1 group comprises the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia -- plus Germany.
The United States has been working with the P5+1 to pressure Iran on its nuclear program, but with few results. The United States and other Western powers allege that the program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran says it is purely peaceful.
The White House also denied the newspaper report, which came two days before President Barack Obama faces Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a televised foreign policy debate.
"It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
"We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."
Salehi said on Sunday it was planned that Iran would hold talks with the P5+1, "probably in late November," according to the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA).
But a spokesman for E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating the efforts of the P5+1, said that "we hope that we will pick up discussions soon, but there is no date at the moment."
The P5+1 has held a series of inconclusive meetings with Iranian officials in the past year. While Western officials say there is still time to negotiate, they also have been ratcheting up sanctions, which are contributing to mounting economic problems in Iran.
The New York Times said Iran had insisted that its direct talks with Washington should not begin until after the U.S. election on Nov. 6, which will determine whether Obama serves a second term or is succeeded by Romney.
The report looked likely to fan campaign debate over foreign policy, where Romney has been accusing Obama of being an ineffective leader who has left his country vulnerable.
He has also accused Obama of failing to give adequate support to Israel, which sees the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence and has tried in vain to persuade Obama to spell out at what point the United States would use force to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
Iran has repeatedly denied Israel's right to exist.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander was quoted on Sunday as praising the launch of a drone into Israeli airspace by the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah this month.
"This issue showed that the Zionists (Israelis) and Americans must know that no place is safe for them anymore," Mohsen Kazemini was quoted as saying by Fars.
Separately, the Guards' top commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, said on Sunday he saw no chance of a military strike on Iran, ISNA reported.
Jafari's comments were in contrast to a statement last month in which he said he expected Israel eventually to go beyond threats and attack Iran.
OBAMA'S SECRET PLAN FOR MONDAY'S DEBATE, AND HOW TO DEFEAT IT
By George Rasley
October 19, 2012
Mitt Romney has Barack Obama on the ropes, but Obama has a secret plan to regain the momentum and turn his election prospects around in Monday’s foreign policy debate.
Obama will cast Romney as a dangerous warmonger -- and it just might work -- especially with a liberal moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, on stage to help Obama push the debate in that direction.
We saw a glimmer of this strategy in the Paul Ryan -- Laughin’ Joe confrontation, first when Ryan equivocated just for a second on whether the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan was solid or not and later on when discussing a question about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
When the subject of Afghanistan came up, Biden said unequivocally that Obama would bring the troops home in 2014.
ABC’s liberal moderator, Martha Raddatz, then pressed Ryan on whether or not he and Romney agreed with a date-certain withdrawal. Ryan said, “We do -- we do agree with the timeline in the transition, but what we -- what any administration will do in 2013 is assess the situation to see how best to complete this timeline.”
It was one of Paul Ryan’s few bad moments in the debate, as he struggled to say that to Team Romney, the 2014 withdrawal date depended on events on the ground, without actually using those words.
Raddatz pressed him through several follow-up questions while Biden called his answers “bizarre” and repeatedly said Obama would have the troops home in 2014 if he is re-elected.
Likewise, when the subject of Iran’s nuclear weapons program came up, Biden quickly played the war card, saying “So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk -- what are they talking about? Are you talking about to be more credible? What -- what more can the president do? Stand before the United Nations, tell the whole world, directly communicate to the ayatollah: We will not let them acquire a nuclear weapon, period, unless he's talking about going to war.”
The difficulty for Governor Romney will be that practically anything he says to contrast his policy with Obama’s will open the door to the charge that a vote for Romney is a vote for another war in the Middle East.
Ever since the 1964 Goldwater -- Johnson campaign, one of the Democrats’ go-to strategies has been to paint the Republican candidate as a dangerous warmonger who can’t be trusted to have his finger on the button that could start a nuclear war.
Unfortunately for Governor Romney, many of the voters who have moved away from President Obama in the past few weeks -- women in particular -- could be brought back into Obama’s column if he can make the charge stick.
Voters and commentators of a libertarian bent, who look at Romney’s foreign policy and national defense advisers and see an awful lot of neo-cons and others associated with the Bush-era policy of pre-emptive war and other foreign military entanglements, will also be watching closely for signs a Romney administration means more foreign military adventures.
Painting Ronald Reagan as a warmonger was Carter’s strategy of last resort in the 1980 campaign, the last time a failed Democratic president faced a surging Republican challenger, and you can count on Obama to try it during Monday’s debate.
To make sure the charges don’t stick, Mitt would do well to study how Reagan handled the issue when he was asked, “You have been criticized for being all too quick to advocate the use of lots of muscle -- military action -- to deal with foreign crises. Specifically, what are the differences between the two of you on the uses of American military power?”
Reagan diffused the warmongering issue, and at the same time delivered one of the more memorable lines of his political career, by saying in part, “. . . to maintain that peace requires strength. America has never gotten in a war because we were too strong. We can get into a war by letting events get out of hand, as they have in the last three and a half years under the foreign policies of this Administration . . .”
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