PARIS | The United States and its biggest European allies are still working out details of how they might punish Iran if talks beginning Thursday on its nuclear program are not successful, the White House and a French official said Wednesday.
U.S. and European strategies have largely converged in a common front to expand economic sanctions if Iran does not open its nuclear program to international inspection and abandon any ambitions to produce nuclear weapons.
But Russian and especially Chinese agreements are less certain and could undercut whatever steps the United States and Europeans might take. There is general agreement on measures to further restrict Iran's ability to trade with the outside world, said government officials and analysts in Europe and Washington, although the precise nature of new sanctions is still the subject of intense discussions.
"We are all united on the perspective of the end of the year," said a French Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "As to the details of what comes then, we are not there yet."
A senior White House official called the final package "an ongoing project."
"We have done a tremendous amount of work and have done a lot of consultations around the world, with respect to the pressure track. We're prepared on a range of areas," said the official, who spoke to reporters at the White House on the condition that he not be named.
Thursday's talks in Geneva will be the first comprehensive, publicly acknowledged negotiations between Iran and the United States since the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 while it held U.S. diplomats hostage.
In an apparent effort to improve the atmosphere for the talks, Iran has allowed Swiss diplomats who represent U.S. interests in Iran to visit three American hikers detained by Iran near the Iraq border in late July. Iran also has released several political prisoners including a businessman, Bijan Khajepour, who has traveled frequently to the United States, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Meanwhile, the United States allowed Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to visit Washington on Wednesday for several hours, the first time in a decade that an Iranian official of that level has been permitted outside the New York area. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley said the Iranians made the request "in the last day or two" and that Mr. Mottaki visited Iran's interest section in Washington. Mr. Crowley called the visit "an interesting coincidence" but said, "I would not read a lot into this."
White House senior officials said Mr. Mottaki was "not seeing anybody from the administration."
Despite the gestures, Thursday's talks are expected to be tough.
"We need to see practical, tangible steps to build confidence in Iranian intentions," including willingness to open Iran's nuclear facilities to thorough international inspection," a senior U.S. official in Geneva said Wednesday. He said a 2007 proposal for a so-called freeze-for-freeze - under which no new sanctions would be imposed and Iran would not expand its uranium enrichment program for six weeks - "remains the starting point for us for discussions."
"I think it's pretty safe to predict that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He also stressed that "from the point of view of the United States, [this] cannot be an open-ended process or talks just for the sake of talks. ... All of us need to see practical steps and measurable results, and we need to see them starting quickly."
The White House official said sanctions would not be discussed Thursday in Geneva.
"This is the engagement track tomorrow, not the pressure track," he said.
Michael Jacobson, a specialist on Iran's finances at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that if the talks fail, "the big thing is to cut off all export credits and insurance" for Iranian trade.
Some European countries have already sharply reduced their export credits to companies doing business with Iran. Germany last year approved $95 million in such export credits, less than one-tenth the amount it granted in 2006.
Mr. Jacobson said Germany, Italy and France had cut back substantially on credits and trade, but Spain and Austria were still doing major business with Iran.
China is even more problematic. Some Europeans began to shy away from doing business with Iran as it revived its nuclear program during the first term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But China swooped in and signed billions of dollars in deals to develop oil and natural gas as well as build pipelines and oil refineries. Chinese exports to Iran have more than doubled in the past four years, and China is a major purchaser of Iranian oil.
The talks have assumed an even more confrontational edge in the aftermath of Mr. Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June. The election triggered massive internal protests, which are still continuing.
In addition, Iran confirmed last week that it had built a second uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom that was hidden from the International Atomic Energy Agency for years.
In disclosing the facility, President Obama, flanked by the British and French leaders, said Iran was threatening world security. All have demanded that Iran provide immediate access to the Qom facility, its designers and its plans.
The strong statement "may have had some merit in establishing a rebalanced perception on the part of the Iranians, who may think of Obama as weak," said Bruno Tertrais, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
Still, expectations going into the Geneva meeting are low.
"The only possibility for success is that Iran agrees to suspend its uranium enrichment program," Mr. Tertrais said. "The second best is that it agrees to discuss its uranium enrichment program. ... However, I don't see any sign that would tell me the Iranians will change tack."
"We are looking for a serious commitment from Iran that we are going to negotiate a solution to the nuclear issue," said Volker Stanzel, political director of the German Foreign Ministry who will take part in Thursday's meeting. "You have to realize that's asking a lot from the Iranians: Such a decision would be a 180-degree turn for them."
Iranian officials have insisted that they were not obliged to disclose the new uranium facility until shortly before they were ready to begin processing uranium. Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Tuesday that his country built the plant inside a mountain and next to a military base as insurance in case of foreign attack on a larger enrichment plant at Natanz.
Mr. Salehi said Iran was willing to discuss "nuclear technology" in Geneva, but "we will never bargain over our sovereign right" to produce nuclear fuel, the Associated Press reported.
While France, Britain and Germany are now seen as favoring new or expanded sanctions on shipping insurance and export credits, they have little appetite for the idea gaining traction in Congress to block exports of refined petroleum products such as gasoline to Iran.
"Gasoline is the supposed weakness of Iran, but this has been hugely overdone," said Richard Dalton, an analyst and former British ambassador to Tehran who is now at Chatham House in London. "Only a naval embargo would have a real effect."
Mr. Dalton said Iran imports 40 percent of its gasoline. Other analysts say the figure has dropped to 25 percent as Iran has constructed new refineries.
Mr. Dalton said there is general agreement that additional sanctions could effectively be imposed in the areas of arms sales, transport links, finance and insurance as well as investment in Iran's oil and gas industry.
Mr. Jacobson said more could be done to enforce sanctions already approved against Iranian banks and arms transfers. He suggested that the United Nations could create a team to monitor sanctions as it has done regarding al Qaeda, Sudan and North Korea.
Given heightened concern over Iranian intentions, the French government has said that the 27-member European Union likely could be persuaded to take unified punitive measures if the U.N. Security Council fails to do so.
"Before some countries could get away with saying that it's not urgent," said the Foreign Ministry official in Paris.
Under the George W. Bush administration, Europeans blamed U.S. policies that set preconditions on negotiations with Iran.
Now, the official said, "We would expect agreement across the EU. ... There's a new American administration, and if it imposes strong sanctions, it would be difficult for it not to do the same."
Barbara Slavin in Washington and Nicholas Kralev in Berlin contributed to this report.