- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Bush administration plans to send an envoy to talks with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in Geneva this weekend in what would be the highest-level U.S.-Iranian meeting in nearly three decades, officials said late Tuesday.

William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs and the administration’s point man on Iran, will accompany European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana with Saeed Jalili in discussions aimed at persuading Tehran to stop enriching uranium.

U.S. officials insisted that Mr. Burns will not negotiate with Mr. Jalili but only listen to what the Iranian has to say. He will “reiterate that our terms for negotiations remain the same: Iran must suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities,” one official was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Still, the meeting represents a remarkable shift for President Bush, who called Iran part of an “axis of evil” six years ago and has refused to engage with Tehran. More significantly, the Saturday meeting will take place before a suspension has occurred.

Two years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, but only if Tehran stops enrichment.

Mr. Mottaki told the United States and five other powers this month that Iran would not engage in “condescending” talks because Middle East developments in recent years have strengthened its position to negotiate on its own terms.

The Iranian response to a refreshed package of incentives in exchange for an enrichment suspension came in a letter that was sent on July 4 and leaked to a French newspaper Tuesday.

“The world has changed,” Mr. Mottaki wrote in an apparent reference to the Iraq war and other regional developments that are perceived to have diminished U.S. influence. “Nobody can regard himself above the law or the sole enforcer of the law.”

In his letter, a copy of which was posted on the Web site of the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, the foreign minister added: “The time for negotiating from the condescending position of inequality has come to an end.”

Last month’s package, which included political, security and economic incentives, came two years after Iran rejected a similar deal offered by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

We have no intention of changing this path,” Mr. Mottaki wrote in his letter. “The people of Iran have worked out plans for the advancement of their country, without asking for help from others.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, meanwhile, called on Tehran on Tuesday to start negotiating with the West now, before the terms get tougher next year should he win the White House.

Mr. Obama, who has been criticized for planning to hold direct talks with Iranian officials without preconditions, sought to appear tough on the Islamic Republic in what was touted as a major foreign policy speech.

“The Iranians should negotiate now. By waiting, they will only face mounting pressure,” he said. “Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a vital national security interest of the United States. No tool of statecraft should be taken off the table.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that the next U.S. administration has “no other option” but to begin talks with Tehran.

“Tehran welcomes negotiations but will not accept the precondition set by the West — the suspension of uranium enrichment,” he was quoted as saying in a television interview.

The U.N. Security Council has adopted three rounds of economic sanctions against Iran because of its refusal to suspend enrichment, which it insists is for peaceful purposes. But the West says the enrichment is meant to be used for a nuclear weapon.

The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee will consider legislation this week that would expand U.S. sanctions against Iran, the panel’s top members said Tuesday. It comes just days after Tehran test-fired missiles it said could reach U.S. assets in the region.

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