- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Bush administration yesterday rejected the idea of direct talks with Iran as long as it pursues a nuclear weapons program, saying recent feelers from Tehran are a sign that the international pressure campaign against Iran is working.

But the administration is facing increasing calls from allies, policy experts and even Mr. Bush’s fellow Republicans to consider the first direct talks with Iran’s Islamic regime since the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

White House spokesman Tony Snow, asked about new private offers from Iran for direct talks, said the United States would not even consider face-to-face negotiations until Iran bowed to international demands to halt its uranium enrichment program, a critical step in the development of nuclear weapons.

Until then, Mr. Snow said, “there will be no change in the administration’s posture and the president’s posture when it comes to one-on-one negotiations.”

He said there “may be some opportunities” for such discussions after Iran gives up its nuclear ambitions, but he declined to elaborate.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the “spike” in Iranian requests for bilateral talks reflected the success of U.S.-backed multilateral diplomacy to isolate Tehran.

“I think what you’re seeing right now is that the Iranians are feeling the pressure of the international community,” he said.

Diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, meeting in London yesterday, tried to hammer out a package of threats and enticements designed to block Iran from pursuing a uranium enrichment program. U.S. officials said progress was made at the meeting, but a final agreement had not been nailed down.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has authorized Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to explore direct talks with Iranian counterparts on the situation in Iraq, but critics say Washington should be open to far broader talks with Iran.

Among those who have said direct talks should be tried: Council of Foreign Relations head Richard Haass and Richard Armitage, both top State Department officials in Mr. Bush’s first term; Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican; and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

At a hearing last week on Iranian policy, Mr. Biden said direct talks would put “enormous pressure” on Iran’s leaders while strengthening the international alliance against Tehran.

“Demonstrating that we made a serious attempt at diplomacy is the best way to keep others on board for tougher actions if Iran fails to respond,” he said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, briefed Miss Rice yesterday for almost an hour about his recent talks with top Iranian nuclear officials but told reporters afterward it was up to the United States to decide whether to engage in direct talks.

Administration officials say Tehran’s offer for bilateral talks is only a ploy to divert attention from the multilateral drive centered on the U.N. Security Council to pressure Iran. They say direct negotiations would also confer new legitimacy on hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

At the Senate hearing, Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, said, “It seems to me we should be talking more with the Russians and the Chinese to toughen up on Iran.”

U.S. officials also express frustration privately that they are slammed for sticking with multilateral diplomacy with Iran after getting heavy criticism for a “unilateral” approach in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.

Iran’s regime has rejected any suggestion that it give up its nuclear programs as a precondition for talks.

“If there is going to be talk, there has to be respect … and the Americans have shown they are not familiar with this element,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told the Reuters news agency in Tehran yesterday. “Therefore, direct talk with America is not on the agenda.”

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