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Biden backs direct talks with Iran over nuclear program

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 8:23 p.m.

MUNICH — The United States is ready for direct talks with Iran if it is serious about negotiations, Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday, backing bilateral contact that some say is crucial to easing a dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich, Biden said Iran is confronting “the most robust sanctions in history.”

“But we have also made clear that Iran's leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation and international isolation,” Biden said. “There is still time, there is still space for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed. The ball is in the government of Iran's court.”

To date, fitful talks on Iran's nuclear program have been overseen by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on behalf of France, Britain, Germany, China, Russia and the United States. They have made scant headway, raising fears that Iran is playing for time while it develops nuclear know-how.

Analysts have suggested that with his re-election behind him, President Obama might have more leeway to take on direct negotiations with Iran.

That makes the year ahead critical for chances of overcoming a stand-off that, if left to fester further, could see Iran approach nuclear weapons capability, possibly provoking military action by Israel that could inflame the Middle East.

Progress on Iran could help ease regional tensions as the United States prepares to pull most combat troops out of Afghanistan, Iran's neighbor, by the end of 2014.

Asked whether Washington might consider direct talks with Iran to smooth the process, Biden said: “When the Iranian leadership, Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), is serious.

“We have made it clear at the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership, we would not make it a secret that we were doing that. We would let our partners know if that occasion presented itself.

“That offer stands, but it must be real and tangible, and there has to be an agenda that they are prepared to speak to. We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise,” Biden said.

Ashton of the EU, who has asked Iran to hold a round of talks this month, on Friday called on Tehran to abandon plans to install and operate advanced centrifuges that would speed up its ability to enrich uranium — potentially making it easier for it to produce the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.

Many believe no deal is possible without a U.S.-Iranian thaw, requiring direct talks addressing myriad sources of mutual mistrust and hostility that have lingered since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Iran has avoided direct, public talks with the United States, though some suggest Tehran eventually would welcome an opportunity to end its international isolation.

Speaking during a news conference in Munich, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would have no objection to direct talks but questioned how much would be achieved if fundamental questions about Iran's nuclear program remain unresolved.

“I don't know when we will have direct talks between the United States and Iran. That is a subject for the president of the United States. I don't think anyone here objects to that,” McCain said.

He added, “To have grounds for optimism, I think, would be a mistake.”

Russia, which has been impatient with decades of U.S. hostility to Tehran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, repeated on Saturday the need to find a diplomatic solution.

“Iran must know the overall game plan; it must see what is in it for it in this process. We need to convince Iran that this is not about regime change. ... This mistrust must be overcome,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the conference.

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