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Iran Sends Mixed Signals in Its Rejection of U.S. Offer

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The president of Iran is rebuffing offers of incentives and talks over Iran's nuclear program. Yesterday in Vienna, the U.S., the Europeans, Russia and China agreed on a package of incentives and penalties. And the U.S. has said it would join talks with Iran if Tehran suspends uranium enrichment. The U.S. and Iran have had very little contact since Iran's revolution in 1979, but last month Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a surprise letter to President Bush; a letter covering a wide range of topics. Today, Ahmadinejad insisted that the new pressure from the West will not get a result.

BLOCK: Azadeh Moaveni is covering the story from Tehran for Time magazine. Welcome.

Ms. AZADEH MOAVENI (Reporter, Time Magazine): Thank you.

BLOCK: It sounds like a pretty emphatic statement from the president today. Do you see any room for movement there?

Ms. MOAVENI: Well, we've heard a lot of emphatic statements from the president who, it seems, is delegated by this regime to make those emphatic statements. But if we look towards the foreign ministry, which is often where we hear the moderated remarks that actually reflect the thinking within the administration, the foreign minister said yesterday that Iran welcomes direct talks but has a problem with the pre-condition of suspension.

BLOCK: The suspension of the uranium enrichment program, then.

Ms. MOAVENI: Yes, but again, you know, talking with prominent conservatives here, you definitely get the sense that in Tehran this is registering as a first step towards taking talks with the U.S. forward; that there's going to be, of course, a negative or a critical response to the pre-conditions, but a willingness to talk about potentially even suspending uranium enrichment for the duration of negotiations. That's been talked about as something that might be floated from Tehran in the next few days.

BLOCK: And could that be viewed in a way where Iran would be saving face? Wouldn't be seen as capitulating?

Ms. MOAVENI: Exactly. It would be sort of meeting at least one demand of Washington's but not definitively, you know. And also Tehran might insist that there be a finite timeline to negotiations, so that the uranium enrichment is seen as a temporary agreement to take talks forward rather than a capitulation.

BLOCK: How is the prospect of talks including the U.S. being viewed there in Tehran? There haven't been talks on such a high level since the Islamic revolution back in 1979.

Ms. MOAVENI: Well, inside the regime I would say that the most senior leadership is very keen to talk to the U.S. That's why, although the content of President Ahmadinejad's letter didn't really signal this; but the fact that there was a letter at all shows that there's a uniform opinion across the regime that this is the time to engage with the U.S. to negotiate over the core issues that have been divisive over all of these years and to really take Europe out of this role as intermediary.

BLOCK: How will you measure the pressure that's on Iran right now to accept this package? You have Iran's longtime allies - Russia and China - on board now with this.

Ms. MOAVENI: I think Iran is very carefully measuring how far it can rely on Russia and China's resistance to having Iran face sanctions at the Security Council. At the same time, I think Iran feels that the popularity that it's developed in the Arab and Islamic world gives it strength in bargaining with the international community. So there definitely is a serious desire to avert any kind of confrontation and I think there's a realization of the gravity of where things have gotten with the U.S., but also a sense that Iran can stand firm because that tactic of being firm, this aggressive style of the new president, has yielded these results. That's why we're where we are today.

BLOCK: If things were to break down, though, and if they did end up with sanctions coming from the Security Council, what would happen then?

Ms. MOAVENI: I think that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is ultimately in charge of foreign policy, who calls the shots here, would be very interested in avoiding that because, in the end, he is very sensitive to the stability of Iran internally and sanctions would undermine that.

BLOCK: Azadeh Moaveni, thanks very much.

Ms. MOAVENI: Thank you.

BLOCK: Azadeh Moaveni is a reporter for Time magazine in Tehran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.