Obama officials: talks with Iran still possible

Despite questions about the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election and his belligerent anti-American rhetoric, the White House remains open to discussions with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

“It’s in the United States’ national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday.

As protesters filled the streets of Iranian cities after the disputed vote, Ahmadinejad accused the West of stoking the unrest, singling out Britain and the United States for allegations of meddling. Iran expelled two British diplomats last week and Britain responded in kind. Iran, which detained nine British Embassy employees Saturday before releasing four, on Monday dismissed earlier suggestions it might downgrade diplomatic relations with Britain.

The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Tehran since the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Ahmadinejad has said he would make the U.S. regret its criticism of the postelection crackdown and said the “mask has been removed” from President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve relations.

Rice said Sunday that Ahmadinejad was falling back on his government’s usual strategy of blaming the West and the United States in particular for its internal problems.

“This is a profound moment of change. And what Ahmadinejad says to try to change the subject is, frankly, not going to work in the current context, because the people understand that the United States has not been meddling in their internal affairs,” she said.

The legitimacy of the government, while questioned by the people of Iran, is not the critical issue for the U.S. goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear capability, Rice said.

Both Rice and David Axelrod, Obama’s top adviser, said Ahmadinejad doesn’t appear to have the final say over Iran’s foreign policy. Axelrod, dismissing Ahmadinejad’s harsh language as “bloviations,” said being open to talks with Iran is not an effort to reward the country.

“We are looking to … sit down and talk to the Iranians and offer them two paths. And one brings them back into the community of nations, and the other has some very stark consequences,” Axelrod said.

White House officials pointed to Obama’s remarks last week, urging engagement. “My expectation would be … that you’re going to continue to see some multilateral discussions with Iran,” Obama said Friday.

Officials in Washington said they want Iranian officials at the negotiating table ? which, they say, was not destroyed during the postelection demonstrations in Iran.

“We are also mindful of the fact that the nuclear weapons in Iran and the nuclearization of that whole region is a threat to that country, all countries in the region, and the world. And we have to address that. We can’t let that lie,” Axelrod said.

Rice appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and Axelrod on both ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.