U.S. and European Allies Agree on Steps in Iran Dispute
WASHINGTON, March 10 - Europe and the United States have agreed on a joint approach to negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program after months of dispute, with the Bush administration agreeing to offer modest economic incentives and the Europeans agreeing to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council if negotiations fail, senior American officials said Thursday.
The American incentives would go into effect only if Iran agreed to halt the enrichment of uranium permanently. The agreement represents a major shift in strategy for both the Bush administration, which has refused for years to offer Iran incentives to give up its program, and for Europe, which had been reluctant to discuss penalties.
The agreement, which has been widely anticipated since President Bush returned from Europe late last month, is expected to be announced on Friday. The United States will agree to support Iran's entry into the World Trade Organization, a process that usually takes years, and the sale of critical spare parts for the country's aging commercial airliners.
"We're in support of what the Europeans are doing, but we had to find a way to demonstrate it," a senior American official deeply involved in the debate within the administration said about the pending announcement. "This is our way of making clear that we will join the Europeans in giving Iran positive reasons to give up its program."
Though Mr. Bush will not announce the change himself, just as he did not announce a similar offer to North Korea last June, he has been closely involved in the administration's change of direction. But while the United States is a party to negotiations with North Korea, it does not plan to join the talks with Iran directly, officials said, leaving that to the Europeans.
Until now, the president has insisted he would never "reward" Iran for giving up activities that he has insisted are a cover for a weapons program. That position hardened after Iran admitted that it had hidden facilities and enrichment activities from international inspectors for 18 years.
Iran has voluntarily halted its enrichment activities while it is engaged in negotiations with Britain, France and Germany. But its leaders have repeatedly declared that it will never give up its right to enrich uranium for what it insists are peaceful purposes. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has ratified, gives all signers the right to enrich uranium as long as the work is peaceful, declared and fully monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The monitoring is intended to assure that a country is only producing low-enriched uranium capable of fueling commercial nuclear reactors, rather than high-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Iran's senior negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, told a conference in Tehran last weekend that the country would never agree to a permanent cessation of enrichment. But the senior American official involved in the administration's negotiations with Europe said that, after some heated internal debate, "the Europeans are now with us in the view that we could never monitor their enrichment activity reliably enough" to ensure that Iran was not producing bomb-grade uranium.
Some European diplomats have argued that point in recent weeks, saying that Iran cannot be prohibited from enrichment while other signers of the treaty are permitted to produce nuclear fuel. But the American official insisted "that argument is now over."
Some officials in the Bush administration have said they believe that Iran will not agree to give up enrichment, no matter what incentives Mr. Bush offers. They see the president's decision to dangle what amount to modest American economic incentives as part of an effort to speed along the negotiating process so that Iran's intentions become clear.
At that point, in the view of hawks on the issue inside the White House and the Pentagon, the Europeans will be bound to take the issue to the Security Council. These officials would only speak anonymously because such delicate negotiations hang in the balance.
When she served as national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice often said that the question of stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon should be put before the Security Council, but the Untied States could never muster the votes among the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog.
The Europeans, in contrast, have argued that unless the United States joined in the incentives they offered, Iran would never seriously consider giving up control of what is called the "nuclear fuel cycle," the ability to produce nuclear fuel itself.
American officials have said they will insist on a timetable so that talks do not drag on for months or years. Whether the Europeans will announce such a timetable is unclear. Several weeks ago, the new director of central intelligence, Porter J. Goss, said that Iran was judged to be several years away from producing an actual weapon.
Iran could see benefits from the offer of aircraft parts relatively soon, officials said. Its aging craft are in need of parts for engines and American-made avionic equipment. But entry into the World Trade Organization is far more complex, requiring huge changes in a nation's economy and vast openings to foreign investors. The United States offered to help Russia along that path eight years ago, but it has still not joined the W.T.O. China took years to negotiate its entry.
With Friday's announcement, the administration will have changed course in dealing with both of the leading aspirants for nuclear technology, North Korea and Iran. Mr. Bush came to office refusing to deal with either nation until each first gave up its weapons program. In North Korea's case, that approach was judged no longer tenable last June, and the administration offered a similar road map of incentives. But North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has yet to respond to that offer.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington for this article and Steven R. Weisman from Mexico City.