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Nuclear negotiator: Iran ready for talks with West over program

TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s top nuclear negotiator offered an opening yesterday for possible compromise with the West, saying the Islamic regime is ready to hold talks with world powers over its nuclear program.

But Iranian lawmakers also sent a message of defiance to the world community – displaying strong support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nominee for defense minister even though he is wanted by Argentina for the bombing of a Jewish community center in 1994 that killed 85 people.

Some parliament members cried ‘Death to Israel’ as the prospective defense minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, addressed the chamber on the eve of a vote for all of Ahmadinejad’s selections for his 21-seat cabinet.

The embattled president faces another key test in today’s expected vote. Many lawmakers – including some former conservative allies – have questioned the caliber of his picks for the government posts, which include the first women named for possible Cabinet seats since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The rejection of several prominent nominees by the parliament would be another setback for Ahmadinejad, who has faced increasingly political isolation for his unwavering support of the hard-line crackdown on protesters after his disputed June 12 election.

Many lawmakers have contended some of Ahmadinejad’s selections for Cabinet posts lack experience or are political cronies.

Beyond the struggle over his government, Ahmadinejad faces a month full of pivotal moments – his annual trip to the U.N. General Assembly in late September and the deadline set by President Barack Obama for Iran to begin talks this month on its nuclear ambitions.

Iran’s main nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told reporters that his nation will present a new ‘package of proposals’ and will open talks ‘in order to ease common concerns in the international arena.’

His comments came a day before a meeting outside Frankfurt of the six countries trying to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program – the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany.

The six countries have also been discussing the possibility of holding a high-level meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, said U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

Obama has given Iran a deadline of the end of September to agree to nuclear talks or risk harsher sanctions. Last year, Iran was offered economic incentives in exchange for suspending uranium enrichment, but Iran’s leaders responded by saying they would never give up control of the production of nuclear fuel.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ian C. Kelly said yesterday that Washington has not yet received a new Iranian proposal but will review any offer ‘seriously and in a spirit of mutual respect.’

Israel, which views Iran as its most serious threat, was less optimistic. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Iran has ‘put up a show in the past’ of cooperating with the international community, only to conceal its nuclear activities even more.

‘Iran’s intentions will be tested against their actions, not statements,’ said Palmor. ‘The fact that they appointed a terrorist wanted by Interpol as defense minister is not exactly proof of a will to cooperate with the international community.’

Western nations and others worry Iran is moving toward development of nuclear warheads. But Iranian leaders say the country only seeks reactors to produce electricity.

Senior U.S. officials have speculated that the turmoil in Iran following the disputed June presidential election could distract its senior leaders from diplomacy over the country’s nuclear program. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has supported Ahmadinejad during the crisis, but the pro-reform opposition continues to decry his re-election as fraudulent.

Khamenei’s attempts to quiet the outrage has been complicated by conservatives who have joined the opposition in criticizing abuse against protesters and activists detained after the election.

Ahmadinejad received a welcome show of support yesterday when parliament praised his defense minister nominee Vahidi – whose possible role in the new government has been denounced by Argentina and Jewish groups.

‘Because of the ominous stance of the Zionist regime against Vahidi, I not only give up my opposition but will vote for him,’ state TV quoted Hadi Qavami – a reformist who made a dramatic gesture of dropping his initial opposition to Vahidi.

The widespread support raises the likelihood of parliament confirmation for Vahidi, who was the commander of a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force at the time of the attack in Buenos Aires.

Iran has denied that Vahidi was involved in the attack. But Interpol said in 2007 it would help Argentina arrest Vahidi and the four other Iranians wanted in connection with the bombing.

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