April 8, 2009 / 9:12 PM / 11 years ago

U.S. takes more steps toward a leery Iran

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration took another tentative step toward better ties with Iran on Wednesday and became a full participant in nuclear talks with Tehran, but the Islamic Republic showed no sign of a detente.

The decision to join future talks with other major powers over Iran’s nuclear program is part of President Barack Obama’s plan to deal directly with Tehran on key issues and a reversal of the departed Bush administration’s isolation policy.

But experts predict it could take time to overcome decades of mistrust, and they expect Iran to react with caution, particularly ahead of Iran’s June presidential election.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said engaging Iran was practical and Washington would do whatever it could to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“Obviously, we believe that pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense,” Clinton told reporters when asked about the decision to take a permanent seat at nuclear talks.

The decision was announced in London after a meeting of senior diplomats from major powers seeking to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is cover to build an atomic bomb and Iran says is to generate electricity.

Despite overtures for engagement, including a videotaped message by Obama last month, Iran has not yet reciprocated in kind. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Monday he was waiting for concrete measures from Washington.

Underscoring deep tensions between the two nations, Iranian media announced on Wednesday that Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi had been charged with espionage on behalf of the United States, and her trial would start next week.

Clinton, who has personally appealed several times for the 31-year-old Saberi’s release, said she was “deeply concerned” by the news and demanded immediate freedom for the journalist, whose parents live in the United States.

Last week, a U.S. official accompanying Clinton at a conference in the Hague handed over a letter, or aide-memoire, to the Iranian delegation demanding help in the case of Saberi and two other Americans, including a former FBI agent missing in Iran, Robert Levinson.

NO SIGN OF DETENTE

The letter was a departure from normal exchanges with Iran, which are usually through Swiss interlocutors as the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the United States still has not received a response from Iran over the aide-memoire and urged Tehran to do so.

Asked whether the United States was disappointed by Iran’s response overall to U.S. overtures, Wood indicated irritation with Tehran. “Obviously, we need a partner with an outstretched hand as well,” Wood told reporters.

Experts say Iran’s response so far has been predictable.

“For the last 30 years, enmity toward the United States has become central to the identity of the Islamic Republic,” said Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

“There is great resistance to an improvement, and that is why you see the spoilers,” he added. “The difficulty they (the Obama administration) will face is how they choose to respond to these spoilers.”

The Obama administration is still reviewing its policies toward Iran and more steps are expected in the coming weeks, including an official lifting of restrictions on contacts between U.S. diplomats and their Iranian counterparts.

U.S. diplomats for three decades have had to receive special permission to hold any substantive talks with Iranian officials, a barrier expected to be formally lifted.

The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis in which a group of militant Iranian students held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage at the American Embassy for 444 days.

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