- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2005

President Bush is in a “listening mode” on how to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and appears open-minded about joining Europe’s strategy of negotiating with a regime he called part of the “axis of evil.”

Iran was a prime topic of discussion during Mr. Bush’s tour of Europe last week, and the president learned that it was improbable that the United Nations Security Council would join his hard-line stance and impose harsh sanctions against the ruling mullahs.

Europe has preferred a softer approach, offering economic incentives — including suggestions Iran could join the World Trade Organization — for promises to not develop nuclear weapons.

“The president had a number of meetings last week where we discussed those issues,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. “The president was very much in a listening mode during some of those meetings. He listened to some of the ideas for how we can move forward together, and the president is now considering some of those ideas that were discussed.”

The White House has long avoided dealing directly with Iran lest it be interpreted by the mullahs as a U.S. endorsement of their oppressive Islamist regime. The administration has depended on Britain, France and Germany, working through the European Union, to handle the diplomacy while Mr. Bush has kept open the threat of military action by saying “everything is on the table” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli suggested U.S. diplomats are unlikely to directly negotiate with Iran soon.

“The question of us sitting with Iran is not necessarily something that’s going to contribute to moving this process forward,” he said.

However, yesterday a British official said that Britain, France and Germany have discussed supplying Iran with commercial aircraft and aircraft parts as incentives, in addition to membership in the WTO.

Meanwhile, Russia is poised to sell nuclear technology to Iran, including fuel for reactors, despite Mr. Bush’s attempts to talk Russian President Vladimir Putin out of the sale last week.

Mr. McClellan said the United States will closely monitor Russia’s dealings with Iran and insist that Iran keep its promises to return spent fuel that can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

“Russia has previously assured us that no nuclear fuel should be delivered to Iran until Iran comes into compliance with its international obligations and that any spent nuclear fuel must be returned to Russia,” Mr. McClellan said. “We’ve also made it clear it’s important that Iran ratify and adhere to the additional protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“We believe the fuel takeback is important to reducing any proliferation concerns, and Russia has worked to build such protections into its agreement with Iran,” he said. “That’s something that they have previously assured us about.”

The White House, however, is convinced that Iran has ulterior motives for developing a nuclear power plant that, with Russia’s help, can be operational by 2006.

“You can understand our skepticism when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, because Iran has vast amounts of oil,” Mr. McClellan said. “We don’t see a need for Iran to develop such a broad civilian nuclear program. That’s why we are concerned that they are trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of that civilian nuclear program.”

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