A Press TV misinterpretation unleashed a media storm Tuesday after President Ebrahim Raisi gave a vague reply in a TV interview to a query on direct US talks.

After noting "occasional whispers" over the United States seeking bilateral contact, Raisi, during an hour-long interview broadcast live by state television, was asked for Iran’s response should such a request be made “in a serious manner.”

Such an approach would not be unprecedented, including during times before he took office, Raisi replied. “[Officials of] many countries who meet with us here sometimes bear messages from Americans saying they want to talk with us directly…So far there have been no [direct] negotiations with the Americans. But we have announced before, and say it again, that there will be room, fully, for any kind of agreement, if the other sides are prepared to lift the unjust sanctions against us.”

The interviewer did not press the president over recent remarks by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, envisaging direct talks. Amir-Abdollahian said Monday that the possibility would not be "overlooked" if a "good deal with strong guarantees" was within reach as part of the Vienna talks seeking to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

Apparently following an account of Raisi’s interview on the Press TV English-language website, however, a slew of international reports and social media posts claimed the president had made direct talks conditional on the US first lifting sanctions. These apparently prompted Press TV to amend its account of the interview.

Speculation, or tactic?

The confusion was not just abroad. Abdollah Ganji, chief editor of Javan newspaper affiliated with IRGC, tweeted Tuesday that he did not now know whether direct talks with the US were “speculation or a tactic.”

Ganji insisted that Tehran should maintain its stance that Washington should not re-enter the formal Vienna process until it rejoined the JCPOA by withdrawing sanctions introduced since 2018 in violation of the pact. “If it's been decided [that talks with the US are] to happen, [they] should be bilateral…The US presence…[in the formal Vienna talks] means its return to the JCPOA without offering a guarantee to abide by its commitments to it.”

In another tweet Tuesday, Ganji said direct negotiation was a "possibility" that the nezam (‘system’) had always considered possible whenever a positive outcome was expected, “when it was not just talking for the sake of talking." The JCPOA was proceeded by two years of direct US-Iran talks, but Tehran ruled out such bilateral contact when the US left the JCPOA in 2018.

Nezam (system) is a word often used by Iranian politicians to refer to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when mentioning him directly is to be avoided.

Javan newspaper Tuesday splashed a front-page headline, with Amir-Abdollahian's photo: "Direct Talks On Condition of Good Agreement with Strong Guarantees." Many hardliners were skeptical over the JCPOA, or opposed it, and were critical of what they said was the over-reliance on outreach to western Europe and the US of the previous administration of President Hassan Rouhani.

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