WASHINGTON - A senior Iranian official reportedly told members of the Iranian parliament Monday that Iran has agreed to freeze its enrichment programme for six weeks and begin negotiations with the P5+1 group of states as early as next week, according to reports of that decision by the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) and by a Farsi-language website in Iran.
Remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki and a top adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Tuesday also seemed to indicate that decision to accept a "freeze for freeze" proposal from the P5+1 to begin at least preliminary negotiations.
The P5+1 consists of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia -- and Germany.
The apparent Iranian decision comes in the wake of an atmosphere of heightened threat of attack on Iran by Israel created by a series of moves by Israeli and U.S. officials in recent days.
The head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh, told members of the Majlis energy committee Monday that Iran has agreed to start the talks, according to the Farsi-language Iranian website Fararou. It said "informed sources" had specified that Iran had accepted a six-week freeze on any expansion of enrichment as a condition on such negotiations, as proposed by European Union foreign affairs chief Javier Solana.
The P5+1 proposal also offers to suspend further progress in advancing U.N. sanctions against Iran. It does not address sanctions organised outside the U.N. Security Council framework, however.
ISNA reported in a brief item on Monday that an Iranian parliamentary energy committee member, whom it did not name, had declared that Iran "has agreed to start talks with 5+1 countries group". It added that the talks "will begin next week".
Although ISNA did not report that the official had said Iran would freeze its nuclear activities, in the sense of foregoing any increase in centrifuges, it implied as much by reporting that the P5+1 proposal delivered by Solana Jun. 14 "required Iran to suspend nuclear activities in exchange for a set of economic and security incentives".
The news further quoted unnamed "Iranian officials" as saying that "common points of the two packages can be a launching pad to start talks".
The Farsi-language website Fararou identified the member of the committee who had quoted Aghazadeh as informing committee members that Iranian authorities had agreed to negotiate with the 5+1 group as Seyed Admad Hosseini. It was Hosseini who was quoted as telling reporters that the talks should start next week.
Fararou also provided additional details on the Aghazadeh's briefing. It said the secretary of the Majlis energy committee, Moayyed Hosseini, told its reporter that the Aghazadeh had pointed to "positive aspects" of the negotiations with the P5+1, "including the fact that the west was accepting Iran's possession of 3,000 centrifuges."
That comment suggested that Tehran will present the "freeze for freeze" proposal as a concession to Iran's right to enrich uranium.
The committee secretary was quoted by Fararou as stating flatly that the proposal for a six-week freeze on enrichment "has been accepted by Tehran".
The same parliamentarian was quoted as saying the atomic energy chief had declared that the "package" of proposals from the P5+1 was still being studied, and that Iran would respond by the end of the week.
The formal P5+1 proposal given to Iranian officials by EU foreign affairs commissioner Javier Solana Jun. 14 was a repackaging of the mid-2006 proposal to Tehran. But it was accompanied by a six-week "freeze for freeze" proposal under which Iran would not increase the level of its enrichment efforts and the P5+1 would freeze the movement towards tougher sanctions against Iran, according to diplomats in London quoted by Reuters Jun. 21.
That would enable "pre-negotiations" to begin between the two sides on "parameters for formal negotiations", according to the diplomats.
Beginning formal negotiations, however, were said to require that Iran to "fully suspend" enrichment, meaning that it would actually temporarily halt the enrichment.
The formal negotiations envisaged would last "up to six months", according to the diplomats cited by Reuters, during which time the halt to enrichment would have to continue.
The remarks by energy committee secretary Hosseini implied that Iran's commitment was only to the six-week freeze on the level of its nuclear activities and not to an actual suspension of enrichment as required for the formal stage of negotiations.
But Mottaki, in remarks at a luncheon meeting with reporters at the Iranian mission in New York, suggested that the Iranians might be prepared to go further.
Mottaki said that there were sufficient commonalities between the Solana proposal on behalf of the P5+1 and Iran's own proposals for negotiations to provide the basis for talks. That remark, paralleling the unattributed view reported by ISNA on Monday, suggested that Iran was preparing to enter into substantive negotiations. Furthermore, Mottaki failed to repeat the standard Iranian statement that enrichment is Iran's legitimate right, even though he was repeatedly questioned on the point.
Further indicating an Iranian desire to take advantage of any diplomatic opening in a period of rising threat from Washington and Tel Aviv, Ali Akbar Velyati, a top foreign policy adviser to Khamenei, said, "Americans wanted Iran not to accept Solana. Therefore our interests imply that we should embrace Solana."
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
© 2008 Inter Press Service