- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

The United States offered yesterday to participate in multilateral talks with Iran on its nuclear program if it suspends uranium enrichment, a policy shift that could result in Washington’s first direct contact with Tehran in 27 years.

In Tehran, the official Iranian news agency called the U.S. offer “a propaganda move.” Iran accepts only proposals and conditions in the nation’s interest, the agency said, and “halting enrichment definitely doesn’t meet such interests.”

The Bush administration ruled out establishing diplomatic relations with Iran at any time soon, saying the proposal was meant only to “enhance” the prospect of peacefully resolving the nuclear dispute.

“We are not talking here about what some have characterized as a grand bargain,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters. “We are not in a position to talk about full diplomatic relations with a state with which we have so many fundamental differences.”

The United States broke ties with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and has blacklisted the regime in Tehran as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The U.S. offer comes as the United States and its European Union partners Britain, France and Germany — also known as the EU-3 —complete work on a package of carrots and sticks intended to entice Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

“To underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance the prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran’s representatives,” Miss Rice said.

The administration dropped its long-standing refusal to talks with Iran —which it repeated as recently as last week —under increasing pressure from Republican members of Congress, former government officials and European allies.

In the end, Miss Rice, who had been saying that talks with Iran are not necessary because it knows what it needs to do, came to the conclusion that negotiations without the United States would not be effective, officials said.

“There have been those who have said, ‘Well, if only the negotiations had the potential for the United States to be a part of them, perhaps then Iran would respond.’ So now we have a pretty clear path,” the secretary said.

The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) said, “Given the insistence by Iranian authorities on continuing uranium enrichment, Rice’s comments can be considered a propaganda move.”

At the United Nations, Russia and China’s U.N. ambassadors praised the U.S. offer of direct talks but Beijing’s envoy urged Washington not to put any conditions on its proposal.

Chinese U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya also urged the Western powers drafting a package of incentives and disincentives to entice Iran into suspending its nuclear program to include security guarantees for Tehran in the package, a “carrot” the United States opposes.

Mr. Wang said Tehran must be allowed to keep pursuing enrichment research, in hopes of eventually producing electric power. So far, the United States as well as Britain, France and Germany have flatly opposed letting Iran pursue enrichment research on its soil.

Both Mr. Wang and Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said it was too soon to speculate on how the U.S. policy shift would affect deliberations on Iran in the U.N. Security Council.

In Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso expressed support for the U.S. offer to conditionally join direct multilateral talks with Iran.

“Since it is essential for the international society as a whole to address the Iranian nuclear issue in a resolute manner, Japan is determined to continue playing a fair role in close consultation with the parties concerned,” he said.

President Bush, warning Iran bluntly that it “won’t have” a nuclear weapon, described the weeks-long effort of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to agree on a package as “robust diplomacy.”

“I thought it was important for the United States to take the lead, along with our partners,” he said in reference to yesterday’s announcement. “I believe this problem can be solved diplomatically, and I’m going to give it every effort to do so.”

Miss Rice, however, refused to rule out the military option in dealing with Iran even temporarily, as the Europeans have done. U.S. officials said she was aware that some members of the administration still oppose the decision to talk to Tehran.

“We’re also prepared if Iran doesn’t change course,” a senior State Department official said. “This will set us up better for getting strong sanctions and building a broader-based coalition against Iran to take effective action in the future.”

He also noted that the administration is working to implement additional “defensive measures” against Iran, such as missile defenses in Europe, anti-arms-proliferation activities and a series of financial actions.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana welcomed Miss Rice’s statement, saying “Direct U.S. participation would be the strongest and most positive signal of our common wish to reach an agreement with Iran.”

U.S. officials also said they were reasonably optimistic that Russia and China finally will drop their objections to including sanctions in the package of benefits and penalties when the foreign ministers of the veto-wielding Security Council members and Germany meet today in Vienna, Austria.

Miss Rice, who flew to Vienna last night, declined to discuss the package before the meeting. But senior U.S. officials said Washington has agreed not to invoke the entire Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter in a future Security Council resolution on Iran to accommodate Moscow and Beijing.

For weeks, the United States has been calling for a Chapter 7 resolution, which would declare Iran a threat to international peace and stability and automatically trigger the option of using force to deal with that threat.

The compromise to be discussed today refers only to certain articles from Chapter 7 that are not linked with the use of force, the senior officials said.

• Bill Gertz contributed to this report.


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