UNITED NATIONS - Iran's senior diplomat said yesterday that Tehran is seriously considering a new offer from six world powers to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program. He called the offer "constructive."
The unusually positive remarks by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to a small group of reporters raised hope that a negotiated solution can be found to defuse the crisis.
The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium that can be used for nuclear weapons, and the Bush administration has refused direct talks with Iran until it meets that condition.
During a 90-minute lunch at Iran's U.N. mission, Mottaki dismissed the growing speculation that Israel or the United States will strike at Iran's nuclear facilities during President Bush's last six months in office.
He described such news reports as part of a long-running campaign of "psychological warfare."
The chance that Israel will attack Iran "is almost nil," Mottaki said. And he said there was little public support in the U.S. for a new conflict.
There are signs of intensified debate within Iran's leadership about its nuclear program. Iran has long said that it has an absolute right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. But Mottaki declined three opportunities to reiterate that position yesterday, indicating that Iran is weighing its options.
"We are seriously and carefully examining" the offer, he said.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, conveyed the offer to Tehran two weeks ago. It essentially repackages a two-year-old proposal by Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States to give Iran political, economic and security rewards if it "verifiably suspends its enrichment-related and reprocessing activities."
Mottaki said that in addition to delivering the six-page offer, Solana made unspecified assurances to Iran's leaders and "We saw the potential for a new balance."
Iran made its own proposal to ease the crisis in May, but it didn't mention ceasing uranium enrichment.
Several compromises have been floated. In one, negotiations would get under way, with the enrichment question the first item on the agenda. It's unclear whether Bush would agree to such a deal.
While Mottaki is Iran's top diplomat, the final say on the nuclear issue belongs to the Shiite Muslim clerics who hold ultimate authority.
In a sign of apparent high-level debate in Iran, a top aide to the country's supreme religious leader made a veiled swipe yesterday at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has used belligerent rhetoric to defend Iran's nuclear work.
"Officials ... should avoid illogical and provocative sloganeering," Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in published remarks, Reuters reported. He seemed to be targeting Ahmadinejad, although not by name.
Velayati called for continued talks with the six world powers: "America and Israel want to isolate Iran in the world by saying that Iran does not want to resolve the issue through talks."