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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Report on Iran Talks Reverberates on Sunday Shows

Foreshadowing what could be fierce lines of argument in Monday's final presidential debate, spokesmen for the two candidates jousted on Sunday over whether the United States should seek to engage Iran in one-on-one talks over its nuclear program, or whether Tehran was simply playing for time.

The prospect of such talks was raised in a New York Times article posted on Saturday, and those who commented on Sunday morning television programs said that they had no specific details, or any confirmation, that such talks might be in the offing.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Sunday dismissed the Times report. On Saturday, the White House also denied that a final agreement on direct talks had been reached, while saying that it remained open to such contacts.

But surrogates of Mitt Romney said Iranian motives should be seriously questioned. Supporters of President Obama, in the meantime, said that the tough international sanctions that the president helped marsha l against Iran may be bearing fruit exactly as hoped - that Tehran was finally blinking.

“I hope we don't take the bait,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a Romney backer. “I think this is a ploy by the Iranians” to buy time for their nuclear program and divide the international coalition, he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But an Obama supporter, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, insisted that the international sanctions were clearly succeeding.

“This month of October, the currency in Iran has declined 40 percent in value,” said Mr. Durbin, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, on Fox. “There is unrest in the streets of Tehran, and the leaders in Iran are feeling it. That's exactly what we wanted the sanctions program to do.”

Precisely how the issue might play out in the final debate is unclear. While Mr. Romney has sharply criticized Mr. Obama's handling of Iran â€" starting with his failure to side more vocally with the antigovernment protests there a few years ago â€" his specific plans to halt Iranian nuclear efforts do not appear to go much beyond what Mr. Obama has done.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, who has helped Mr. Romney prepare for his debates, suggested that the report on Iran might be “another example of a national security leak from the White House,” though he offered no evidence. He did say on NBC's “Meet the Press” that the governor would use the debate to “lay out a clear vision for how to get Iran to do the right thing.”

More specifically, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, representing the Romney campaign on three television shows, seemed to suggest that Mr. Romney might at least be open to talks of some sort.

“I think Governor Romney has said repeatedly that armed conflict should be the absolute last measure that one takes,” he said on ABC's “This Week.”

David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, said he had no knowledge about possible United States-Iranian talks.

“But here is what I do know,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “For two years, the president traveled the world putting together a withering international coalition, and now, the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees.”

The Times, quoting unnamed senior Obama administration officials, reported that after intense, secret exchanges, an agreement has been reached for one-on-one talks between the United States and Iran, which have not had direct diplomatic relations since 1980.

In Iran, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Sunday denied that any direct talks were in the making. “We do not have anything such as talks with the United States,” he told the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Mr. Salehi predicted that there would be a new round of talks with world powers over Iran's nuc lear program in November. “There is no fixed date yet,” he said.

On Saturday, the White House also denied that such an agreement had been reached. “It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman. But he noted that the administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Tehran.