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Iran Calls for New Nuclear Talks

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (file)

Iran's National Security Adviser Saeed Jalili is calling for a new round of negotiations with the West over its nuclear program, amid heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf over threats by Tehran to close the vital Strait of Hormuz. About 40 percent of the world's oil purchases transit through that waterway.

Iran's Al-Alam TV reported that security adviser Jalili made the offer to resume negotiations with the West Saturday, during a meeting with Iranian ambassadors in Tehran. It added that Iran's ambassador to Germany would present the proposal to EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The fresh diplomatic overture follows Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz earlier this week. The U.S. later countered with a promise to keep the strait open - calming oil markets, which had been roiled by the earlier threats.

Iran also appeared to have backed down Saturday from an earlier vow to launch long-range missiles during its ongoing 10-day naval maneuvers in the vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports that it had launched the missiles were followed by later denials by a naval spokesman.

Rear Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi portrayed the naval maneuvers as a mostly defensive action by Iran. He said that the Iranian naval maneuvers in the region of the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean are aimed at keeping the vital Strait of Hormuz open, and that Iran is testing its defensive capabilities, including various missiles in its arsenal.

Reports in the Arab press indicate the U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis had entered the Persian Gulf and was observing the Iranian maneuvers from a distance. The Strait of Hormuz is an international waterway, and closing it would constitute an act of war.

Iran analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington says Tehran is trying to show that it is capable of closing the Strait of Hormuz, while at the same time trying to resume negotiations over its nuclear program which broke off last January:

"The primary message, I think, from the latest Iranian naval exercises and their suggestion that they are both able and perhaps willing to close down the Strait of Hormuz, if it comes down to that, is for the Iranians to say to the West that they, too, can raise the stakes," said Vatanka. "I think that is the key issue here. But as we've also seen the Iranian state in action elsewhere, there are signs of them again raising the issue of the continuation of the negotiations track, aimed at resolving the nuclear stalemate."

Mehrdad Khonsari of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London argues that Iran's recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz is an attempt to scare the West into avoiding further economic sanctions now being debated in both the U.S. and Europe:

"The Iranians have resorted to bluffing and to trying to intimidate people into inaction against them," said Khonsari. "So this issue over the Strait of Hormuz, which has gained so much public attention, is really much ado about nothing, because nothing has happened."

He goes on to argue that the Iranians "are in no position to carry out any of their threats," and that most policy-makers in the West Know that. Some analysts say that economic sanctions recently passed by the U.S. Congress preventing dealings with Iran's central bank could prompt Tehran to lash out at the West. Khonsari, however, says the sanctions will not bite too hard, because neither Russia nor China will allow the U.N. Security Council to pass a similar resolution.

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