U.S. sees hints Iran may return to nuclear talks

Amid mounting U.S. and European sanctions, American officials and Washington Iran analysts said Monday there are tentative signs Iran may be interested in returning to international talks on its nuclear program.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has said Iran wants to resume talks with the so-called 'P5+1,' former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross said at a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Monday (referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). The Iranian foreign minister indicated "he wants to engage on the basis of the Russian step-by-step proposal" for resolving international concerns about Iran's nuclear program in a phased process.

"We will see," Ross, who continues to consult the White House on Iran and Middle East issues as an unpaid adviser, said. (Salehi himself was cited by Iran's Fars News Agency Monday indicating that Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili planned to RSVP in writing "soon" to a proposal for new talks from the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. A spokeswoman for Ashton told Yahoo News Tuesday however they haven't seen the promised letter so far.)

Still, analysts held out little hope for a diplomatic breakthrough on the Iran issue soon, including amid protracted infighting in the Iranian regime and upcoming March 2 Iran parliamentary polls.

Ross's comments come as a sense of the Senate resolution ruling out a U.S. policy of containment toward Iran is expected to be formally introduced as early as Wednesday, Senate sources told Yahoo News. But the resolution's co-sponsors, Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S. C.), and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), have had a hard time attracting Democratic co-sponsors because of concerns it could be a prelude to a congressional "authorization of the use of military force" against Iran, The Hill's Alex Bolton reported Tuesday.

In particular, arms control experts have identified as problematic a provision in the non-binding resolution that would rule out a negotiated agreement allowing Iran to enrich uranium under any circumstances, including a domestic nuclear energy program with international inspections and safeguards. Iran insists it has a right to enrich as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

So far, the only Democratic senators who had signed onto the resolution early Tuesday besides Casey--who is up for reelection this fall--are Senators Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut), Bill Nelson (Florida) and Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Senate sources said.

But a backer of the resolution told Yahoo News Tuesday that there were revisions to it in the works that may alleviate concerns and get the bill more Democratic co-sponsors. However, that support did not appear to be forthcoming by the close of business Tuesday, another source said, who added the resolution was therefore unlikely to be introduced on Wednesday.

Arms control advocates urged Congress not to push measures that could be counterproductive to the administration's efforts to pressure Iran towards a negotiated agreement on curbing its nuclear program.

"What you don't want to do is tie the hands of the administration in its ability to negotiate a way out of this situation," Joel Rubin, a former Senate and State Department staffer now with the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control group, told Yahoo News Tuesday. "Certainly a war would be counterproductive to the goal of preventing a nuclear weapons in Iran, because most analysts and experts agree that--as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said--military action would only delay a nuclear weapon, provide legitimacy for such an effort and decimate the international coalition that is pressuring Iran to come clean."

Separately, the United States and Europe are considering getting Iran booted from the SWIFT financial clearinghouse network, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

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