IRAN’S positive but guarded response on Sunday to America’s offer of bilateral talks on the nuclear question deserves to be welcomed. Laced with usual anti-American criticism, the Iranian reaction to Vice President Joe Biden’s offer at the Munich security conference could serve to lower tensions and perhaps lead to the solution of an issue that has the potential to set the Middle East aflame. Saying that Mr Biden’s offer would be given “serious consideration”, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi asked the US to desist from its “threatening rhetoric” and reminded the world that Tehran had previously held direct talks with Washington in Baghdad several times. The mutual distrust was obvious when both Mr Biden and Mr Salehi asked each other to be “serious”. Serious they must be, because the several rounds of multilateral talks over the years have failed to produce a formula that could be acceptable to the West while satisfying Iran’s legitimate desire to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. By clinching an agreement, they could prove they have succeeded where larger talks have failed.
The two sides have to demonstrate their commitment to a negotiated solution. In America’s case, this involves restraining Israel, where a hard-liner, Benjamin Netanyahu, has become prime minister a third time. Periodic threats from Israeli leaders serve to vitiate the atmosphere and make Iran adopt a tougher position. At the same time, by accepting the Biden offer and negotiating in earnest, Tehran will dispel the impression that it relies on anti-Americanism to bolster the regime’s domestic position. It is also time Washington reviewed its sanctions policy. Iran is an oil power, and while it is under considerable pressure, the sanctions haven’t made Tehran desperate — even though those who suffer are common Iranian citizens. This strengthens rather than weakens the Iranian regime.