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Obama Iran policy deep-dive: Details on measure US sees as key test, as WH disputes Obama letter reports

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Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Ecuador this month. (AP)

Amid intense diplomatic activity to broker a new round of international talks with Iran over its nuclear program, the White House disputed Iranian reports Wednesday that President Obama sent a letter to Iran's Supreme Leader offering direct bilateral talks.

According to Iran's Fars News, Iran has received a letter from President Obama warning against closing the Strait of Hormuz, but also offering direct talks.

"The first part of the letter contains threats and the second part contains an offer for dialogue," Iran parliament member Ali Motahari told the Iranian news service, according to the Associated Press. "In the letter, Obama called for direct talks with Iran … [and] also said that closing the Strait of Hormuz is (Washington's) red line."

The administration disputed the lawmaker's characterization.

Obama's message to the Iranian leader was a standard diplomatic communication--not a letter--relaying privately what the United States has said publicly about red-lines in the Strait of Hormuz, a source explained on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic communications. The diplomatic demarche also repeated the message that the United States and its UN Security Council partners remain committed to a diplomatic solution to tensions.

The White House earlier said it had "nothing new to add" on the alleged presidential communication, a spokesperson told Yahoo News Wednesday. They referred back to comments on U.S.-Iran communications made by White House spokesman Jay Carney last week.

"We have a number of ways to communicate our views to the Iranian government, and we have used those mechanisms regularly on a range of issues over the years," Carney said at the White House press conference Jan. 13, declining to discuss "the details of those communications or mechanisms."

Carney also indicated the U.S. message to Iran is "broader" than the reported warning against closing the Strait of Hormuz.

Yahoo News previously reported that analysts believe the latest White House communication to the supreme leader was likely conveyed by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a trip to Iran earlier this month.

Confidence Building Measure: Key Test

But amid the many signals indicating efforts to resume international Iran nuclear talks--likely in Turkey toward the end of the month--western analysts and policymakers express deep uncertainty about whether Iran is prepared to negotiate.

American non-proliferation officials and diplomats have prepared a so-called "confidence building measure" for Iran to accept as an outcome of the next round of talks. Western governments see Iran's reception of the measure as a key test of whether further negotiations would be productive--or if Iran is even capable of making a decision.

Two Washington Iran analysts described the draft U.S. confidence building measure to Yahoo News last week, as they understood it from conversations earlier this month with its principal author, State Department non-proliferation expert and Iran sanctions czar Robert Einhorn. Under the proposed measure, which the U.S. has been presenting to its P5+1 partners, Iran would agree to halt enriching uranium to 20 percent, and turn over its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. In exchange, western countries would agree not to pass another UN Security Council Resolution sanctioning Iran.

Western diplomats and analysts stress the importance Washington and its allies have placed on Iran's acceptance of the trust-building measure.

"Given the heated political environment and the escalatory potential of Iranian actions in the region, it is very much in Tehran's interest to re-enter negotiations on its nuclear program in good faith and work with the international community to find a way out of this downward spiral," Colin Kahl, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, told Yahoo News.

"What we have been saying to Iran is that there has got be a confidence building measure that emerges out of the next round of negotiations," Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.

But Iran analyst Ray Takeyh said he's not sure if Iran would accept the proposal.

"I am not sure if it's attractive to them," Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said at an Iran panel there Tuesday. He noted the confidence building measure as analysts have recently described it seems to have dropped earlier demands that Iran relinquish most of its stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium as western concern focuses on Iran's 20 percent enrichment activities. If true, he said, it is interesting that the goal posts have changed.

The U.S.-drafted confidence building measure apparently super-cedes another proposal presented to Iran last January at talks in Istanbul. (That proposal, reissued to Iran in a proposal sent by European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton in October, called for Iran to send out its stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium in exchange for nuclear isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients, and to be turned into fuel rods to power the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Clawson said.)

"Perhaps I am underestimating Iran's troubles, but without lifting of some sanctions, [I] can't see why Iran would or could say yes," Iran analyst Trita Parsi, author of a new book on Obama's Iran diplomacy, told Yahoo News Wednesday.

Meantime, Ashton has yet to receive a formal response from Iran to her proposal or an indication it is prepared to enter serious negotiations, a spokesman said--though Iran's foreign minister said Wednesday the logistics were being worked out with Turkey's mediation.

The Iranians "can't send the RSVP last minute, as we will only consider talks on the basis of a substantive response from the Iranians," Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann told Yahoo News Wednesday.

"They have to respond on the substance of the Ashton letter [from October], either reacting concretely to our proposals or coming up with some of their own," he said.

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