TEHRAN – Acknowledging that it is at an impasse with the United States over its nuclear ambitions, yet eager for recognition from the West, Iran is suggesting separate talks with Washington about Iraq, Al Qaeda, the security of Israel and the export of radical Islamic terror.
But Tehran's let's-agree-to-disagree position on its enrichment of uranium is likely to be a non-starter with Bush's White House and some members of Congress. On Sunday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., suggested that if Iran does not end its meddling in Iraq, the U.S. should launch a preemptive strike.
The notion of direct talks with the United States on other issues — including Iran's role in Iraq — surfaced over the weekend in a series of interviews with FOX News, and contrasted sharply with Iran's confrontational public posture.
Over the weekend, four different officials offered nearly identically worded proposals for working with the United States to stabilize the Iraqi government after U.S. troops pull out — as Democrats in Congress are demanding — and to help defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq and throughout the region.
The catch: Iran won't discuss its nuclear program.
"We and the U.S. are at odds over a good number of issues, including the nuclear question," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, one of the architects of Iran's Islamic justice system and the brother of its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. "But simultaneously, our interests in a good number of areas, like preventing the spread of terrorism around the world, are convergent.”
The public relations blitz came at the same time that Iran's interior ministry was threatening to strike U.S. military bases in the Middle East if Iran is attacked and while Iran admits it is holding at least four Iranian-Americans on spy charges.
All the Iranian officials interviewed by FOX News took pains to distinguish cooperation with the United States on Iraq from making any concessions on its plans to develop its nuclear capabilities. On Monday, European Union delegates said their latest talks with Iranian nuclear negotiators ended in failure.
Larijani was one of four Iranian officials from various parts of the ruling regime who expressed a willingness to work with the United States against Al Qaeda, which Shiite-dominated Iran considers a terrorist organization because it is tied to a Sunni Muslim religious agenda.
Even hard-line Iranians suggested to FOX News that when it comes to Iraq, U.S. and Iranian interests converge more than they differ.
"The most important thing is to give more power to the Iraqi government so it can succeed on its own,” said Hossein Shariatmadari, senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. It was Shariatmadari who, a year ago, first broached the idea of Iranian cooperation with the U.S. to stabilize Iraq, a suggestion rebuffed by the White House.
Larijani, Shariatmadari and other Iranians said the four hours of direct talks held between U.S, Iraqi and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad last month had produced early indications that more progress could be made by further negotiations.
Naser Razavi, who heads the Intelligence Ministry's anti-terrorism department, told FOX that Iran would pledge not to allow explosives and land mines produced in Iran to get into Iraq, where they have been used against U.S. troops. "Even if it's true that Iranian ordinance has been used in Iraq, the government is not involved,” Razavi said at the heavily guarded ministry in Tehran. "Regardless, that can be stopped.”
Among other new concessions, the Iranian officials said Iran would work to stabilize whatever Iraqi government was in charge of the country if and when the United States pulls out. Support for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was unanimous among the officials who spoke with FOX News.
Larijani also said Iran would help secure Iraq's border with Iran and vowed to use its influence to quell violence from Shiite-backed militia like Muqtada Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Razavi, the intelligence ministry director, said the Iranian regime does not consider Al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric based in the Iraqi city of Najaf who denounced the United States regularly, to be a terrorist. "Nevertheless, any action or declaration taken by him in opposition to the Iraqi government, we don't support,” Razavi said.
The offer to consult with the U.S. on terror-related issues was made, practically word for word, by the Iranians interviewed by FOX News this weekend. They repeatedly pointed out that Iran was not involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, and had offered condolences after the attack. By contrast, they pointed out that the majority of 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, with which Iran fears is vying for influence in the Middle East and Iraq.
Larijani went so far as to say that the future security of Israel — which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said should be destroyed — could be discussed in talks with the United States. "Destruction doesn't necessarily mean bombs or bulldozers or pushing people into the sea,” Larijani said. "Why can't Jews, Christians and Muslims live together in Palestine under some new arrangement?”
He offered no hope, however, that Iran was ready to shelve its plans for developing nuclear fuel, which the United States believes Iran's military will use to create a nuclear arsenal. "Don't confuse Iraq with nuclear,” counseled Larijani. "On one issue we can work together. On the other, there is no agreement.”
The Iranian proposal for a separate track of negotiations — with nuclear issues set aside — appears to confirm that Ahmadinejad is eager for recognition from the West, which he often denounces in his speeches. One motive is political. Ahmadinejad faces a run for re-election in 2008 and needs to demonstrate that he can speak directly with the United States. His popularity has suffered due to Iran's weakening economy, rocketing prices for gasoline, housing and food, and general discontent with Iran's isolation from the West.
John Moody is executive vice president of FOX News. Scott Norvell is FOX News' bureau chief for Europe.