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Iran has expressed an interest – through Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki – in opening a dialogue with the United States on Iran’s nuclear program. Prime Minister Maliki has told U.S. officials that Iran’s incoming president, Hassan Rouhani, is serious about discussions with the U.S.
Gary Samore, executive director of research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, gives us his perspective on this message from Iran.
Q: Why would Iran go through Iraq to send a message about its willingness to discuss nuclear issues, why not directly approach the U.S.?
Samore: Any direct dealing with the United States government is highly controversial in Iran because the United States is seen as the greatest enemy of the Islamic Republic. Even indirect contacts with the United States through third parties, such as Iraq, are controversial. For example, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has officially denied press reports that Iran approached Iraq to help arrange direct U.S. - Iranian talks.
Q: Do you believe Iran is ready to have a conversation about its nuclear capabilities or is this more of a public relations move?
Samore: Iranian officials probably recognize that direct talks with the U.S. are the only vehicle for achieving a negotiated resolution of the nuclear issue. However, the U.S. and Iran remain very far apart on the substance of a deal, in particular whether Iran will agree to physical limits on its nuclear facilities so that it could not quickly produce large quantities of weapons grade nuclear materials. Therefore many Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Khameini, have publicly said they do not have high expectations that Washington and Tehran can come to an agreement.
Q: What does Iraq have to gain from an open dialogue between Iran and the U.S.?
Samore: Baghdad hopes that if it can help facilitate improved relations between the U.S. and Iran, then it would ease conflicting pressures on Baghdad from Washington and Tehran. For example, in the case of the Syrian Civil War, the Iraqi government is allowing Iran to use its airspace to transfer weapons and equipment to the Syrian government, while Washington is pressuring Baghdad to halt these shipments.
Q: How, if at all, would this discussion benefit the U.S.?
Samore: President Obama has been seeking direct talks with Iran since 2009 because he believes such talks are necessary to resolve the nuclear issue and improve relations between the U.S. and Iran.