- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Obama administration accelerated a diplomatic blitz with Iran on Wednesday, saying that it will drop previous conditions and become a “full participant” in European Union-led nuclear negotiations.

The talks, headed by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, have been going on for more than four years. The Bush administration refused to take part unless Iran stopped enriching uranium, which Tehran says is for civilian purposes but can be also used to build a nuclear weapon.

The decision was announced as top diplomats from six nations dealing with the issue met in London. The group is known as the “P5+1” and includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China - as well as Germany.

“What is different is that the U.S. will join P5+1 discussions with Iran from now on,” State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters. “If Iran accepts, we hope this will be the occasion to seriously engage Iran on how to break the logjam of recent years and work in a cooperative manner to resolve the outstanding international concerns about its nuclear program.”

The group in 2006 offered Tehran political and economic incentives for ending uranium enrichment, but Iran refused. That has led to three rounds of U.N. sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, “is now participating in the P5+1 as a full participant, not just as an observer.”

“Pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense, and there's nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Mrs. Clinton said.

State Department officials said the administration still wants Iran to suspend uranium enrichment but will no longer make that a precondition.

The announcement follows a series of overtures including a Persian new year's message from President Obama and a brief meeting between Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and an Iranian deputy foreign minister at a conference on Afghanistan last month - the highest-level exchange between the two countries in almost eight years.

Bypassing intermediaries, the U.S. also handed the Iranians a letter asking for the return of three U.S. citizens known or thought to be in Iran.

One, Iranian-American freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, 31, was charged Wednesday with spying for the U.S. - a sign, perhaps, that Iran does not want to look overeager to accept the U.S. overtures.

Last month, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded to Mr. Obama's new year's message by saying Tehran was still awaiting concrete changes in U.S. policy.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was more conciliatory Wednesday.

“The Iranian nation welcomes a hand extended to it should it really and truly be based on honesty, justice and respect,” he said in a speech broadcast on state television. “But if, God forbid, the extended hand has an honest appearance but contains no honesty in content, it will meet the same response the Iranian nation gave to” President George W. Bush.

A senior official from the United Arab Emirates said Iran was having trouble digesting the diplomatic blitz.

“I believe you've surprised them, and it will take them some time to respond,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the delicate nature of relations between Iran and his country.

Other nations are still trying to mediate between the U.S. and Tehran.

Japanese officials said that Japan's ambassador to Iran and a senior Foreign Ministry official met in Washington recently with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and other U.S. officials.

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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