Joe Biden made his first official overseas trip as vice president on Saturday, pledging at a security conference in Munich, Germany, that the new administration intends to hold official talks with Iran.
"We will be willing to talk to Iran and to offer a very clear choice: Continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives," Biden said.
But White House officials dismissed rumors that Biden planned to have quiet meetings with Iranian officials who were attending the Munich conference.
“The vice president has no plans to meet with any Iranian officials while in Munich,” an administration official told Newsmax.
Speaking in Tehran at a press conference with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal last week, Iranian foreign minister Manoucher Mottaki said that Iran would “make our views known” at the Munich conference, but had no intention of holding direct talks with Biden at that time.
“Resumption of relations with the U.S. under the new circumstances is of prime importance and we are now studying the change of attitude and U.S. policies to make our views known, but we have no plan to do so at the upcoming Munich security conference,” Mottaki said, as the Hamas leader looked on.
Iran’s leaders have been holding back from direct talks with the U.S. as officials and advisers to the Obama administration “negotiate with themselves in public,” said Sardar Haddad, a U.S.-based Iranian dissident.
“Why should they agree to anything when they can sit back and watch the U.S. negotiate a better deal for them on television?” he told Newsmax.
On Friday, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani took a hard line, reiterating the demands put forward last week by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
[Read Ahmadinejad’s chilly response to Obama’s offer of direct talks. Go here now.]
“In the last year, the U.S. has burned many bridges,” Larijani told the Munich conference, shortly before Biden arrived. “A new White House can rebuild them, but this requires new pragmatic strategies based on respect and fair play: the carrot-and-stick approach must be discarded.”
But Biden and outside analysts sympathetic to the new U.S. administration’s view that Washington should conduct direct talks with Tehran continue to use the carrot-and -stick analogy.
At a conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington this week, former Clinton administration official Kenneth Pollock said that engagement with Iran is “not a ‘kill them with love’ policy.”
Instead, he was urging the new administration to open direct talks with Iran “as part of a larger carrot and stick policy to move the Iranians in the right direction … because all the other options are worse.”
Pollock said he believed the Iranian leadership has “made a decision to meet with the United States … But I do not believe they have made a decision yet to make concessions to the United States, even in return for our concessions to them.”
Because they appeared to be seeking to buy time through negotiations to continue work on their nuclear program, talks with Iran “do not make sense as a strategy, but as a tactic,” he added.
While such an approach might make sense in Washington, leaders in Iran have so far rejected any efforts to get them to slow down their nuclear program, or to agree to reduce their support for terrorist groups such as Hamas.
Instead, every fresh statement from Washington about the Obama administration’s willingness to talk seems to be taken as a sign of weakness in Tehran, where Iran’s leaders just keep on upping the ante.
A senior Iranian cleric blasted the Obama administration in a speech in Tehran on Friday.
“As long as America sees itself as the ruler of the world the slogan of change is a lie,” Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told worshipers in a sermon at Friday prayers.
“Obama’s remarks over the past two weeks show that his promise of change is a lie because he is repeating [former President George W.) Bush’s mistakes by saying that the U.S. is committed to the security of Israel and that sanctions against Iran still exist.
“America should know that the world will not be deceived by these gestures.” Instead, the Obama White House “should bring a real change to its policies,” he said.
Khatami is the brother of former President Mohammad Khatami, touted as a “moderate” in the West.
The Iranian regime could go even further in its demands on the U.S. in the coming weeks, according to IRNA, the official news agency.
IRNA led its coverage of Biden’s Munich speech by singling out the pledge of the new administration to end the use of torture against suspected terrorist detainees.
“America will not torture,” Biden said. “We will uphold the rights of those who we bring to justice. And we will close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.”
But then he added that the U.S. “will ask others to take responsibility for some of those now in Guantanamo, as we determine to close it. Our security is shared.”
IRNA commented that Biden’s remarks on torture “followed recent statements by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, who urged the indictment of former U.S. president George W. Bush and his secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld for their role in the torture and abuse of prisoners in the notorious Guantanamo prison camp.”
Citing an interview Nowak gave to Germany’s ZDF television on January 20, IRNA reiterated the U.N. official’s claims that “President Barack Obama is legally obligated to prosecute Bush and Rumsfeld because the U.S. has ratified the U.N. Convention on Torture and has recognized it as legally binding.”
"Therefore they must do everything they can that persons who are accused of torture, are put on trial," IRNA cited Nowak as telling German television.
In an English-language translation of Nowak’s comments in German, available from ZDF, the U.N. official stated that because Bush’s immunity as president of the United States was now over, the Obama administration “was obligated by international law to commence a criminal investigation into Bush’s torture practices.”
”The evidence is sitting on the table,” Nowak said. “There is no avoiding the fact that this was torture.”
Obama has stated publicly that he agrees with that assessment, just as Biden did Saturday in Munich.
During their Senate confirmation hearings recently, incoming Attorney General Eric Holder and CIA Director Leon Panetta also stated that they believed the United States engaged in torture against suspected terrorist detainees.
AEI scholar Danielle Pletka acknowledged that the new administration has the authority to carry out its pledge to talk to the Iranian regime.
“OK, we’re going to sit down with the Iranians,” she said. “But we haven’t really talked seriously or debated the issues at hand, what the end game is, what our expectations are, and what we hope will happen along the way.”
For example, she said, Tehran “wants a dominant regional role. Do we really want to see that? Do we really want Iran to have a seat at the table of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?”
Then she warned that talking to Iran also had its price, and that Iranian preconditions to talks could be so exorbitant that the U.S. would “lose all the ground” it had gained with the European allies over the past five years in crafting a common front to oppose Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
“Everybody here recognizes there is a time line,” she said. “There is an urgency to sitting down and discussing with the Iranians because there is an urgency to moving them away from the final movement when they cross the threshold and actually have nuclear weapons in hand.”
The real question, she said, was “how long the Obama administration is willing to sit down and talk with the Iranians while they continue to move forward with their program? It’s not an unreasonable question to ask.”
And one that the Obama administration has pointedly refrained from answering until now.
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