U.S. Is Debating Talks With Iran on Nuclear Issue
WASHINGTON, May 26 — The Bush administration is beginning to debate whether to set aside a longstanding policy taboo and open direct talks with Iran, to help avert a crisis over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program, European officials and Americans close to the administration said Friday.
European officials who have been in contact with the administration in recent weeks said the discussion was heating up, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked with European foreign ministers to persuade Iran to suspend its efforts to enrich uranium.
European leaders make no secret of their desire for the United States to join in the talks with Iran, if only to show that the Americans have gone the extra mile to avoid a confrontation that could spiral into a fight over sanctions or even military action.
But since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the crisis over the seizure of American hostages in November that year, the United States has avoided direct talks with Iran. There were sporadic contacts during the war in Afghanistan, in the early stages of the Iraq war and in the days after the earthquake in Bam, Iran, at the end of 2003.
European officials say Ms. Rice has begun discussing the issue with top aides at the State Department. Her belief, they say, is that ultimately the matter will have to be addressed by the administration's national security officials, whether talks with Iran remain at an impasse or even if there is some progress.
But others who know her well say she is resisting on the ground that signaling a willingness to talk would show weakness and disrupt the delicate negotiations with Europe. Ms. Rice is also said to fear that the administration might end up making too many concessions to Iran.
Administration officials said President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have opposed direct talks, even through informal back channels. As a result, many European officials say they doubt that a decision to talk is likely soon.
The prospect of direct talks between the United States and Iran is so politically delicate within the Bush administration that the officials who described the emerging debate would discuss it only after being granted anonymity.
Those officials included representatives of several European countries, as well as Americans who said they had discussed the issue recently with people inside the Bush administration. Some of the officials made clear that they favored direct talks between the United States and Iran.
State Department officials refused to talk about the issue, even anonymously. But over the last week, administration spokesmen have been careful not to rule out talks.
Discussion about possible American contacts with Iran has been fueled not simply by the Europeans, but by a growing chorus of outsiders with ties to the administration who have spoken out in favor of talks.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in a recent column in The Washington Post, raised the possibility that the recent rambling letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush — dismissed by Ms. Rice as an offensive tirade— could be seen as an opportunity to open contacts.
Both Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former top aide to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and Richard L. Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state under Mr. Powell, have also advocated talks with Iran.
"Diplomacy is much more than just talking to your friends," Mr. Armitage said in a telephone interview. "You've got to talk to people who aren't our friends, and even people you dislike. Some people in the administration think that diplomacy is a sign of weakness. In fact, it can show that you're strong."
Mr. Armitage held the last high-level discussions with Iran, after the Bam earthquake. In November 2004, Mr. Powell sat next to the Iranian foreign minister at a dinner during a conference in Egypt on Iraq, but he said they engaged only in small talk.
The United States has stayed out of the talks with Iran, which began in late 2004 and got new life last summer when, with American endorsement, the Europeans offered to help Iran integrate politically and economically with the West if it ended its nuclear ambitions.
Also on the table were unspecified security guarantees suggesting that Iran would not have to worry about outside efforts to topple the government.
The Europeans are now working with the United States, Russia and China on a revised package of economic, political and nuclear energy incentives if Iran ended its nuclear enrichment activities. Also being sought, at least by the Europeans and the United States, is an agreement to take Iran to the United Nations Security Council if it continues to defy the demands for compliance on nuclear issues.
European officials say the discussions about possible American-Iranian contacts are not part of these talks, but would be a way to improve the atmosphere with Iran.
Among the European diplomats who have urged Ms. Rice to consider direct contacts with Iran are Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, raised the issue with President Bush when she visited Washington earlier this year.
"What's interesting about Rice is that she listens when you make your case," a European official said.
Another European diplomat said, "It's a European aspiration for talks to happen," but added, "Nothing is likely at the moment." Still another European diplomat said of the Americans that "everyone and their brother has been telling them to do it."
One reason senior administration officials do not like the idea of talking with Iran, many of them say, is that they are not certain Iranian leaders would respond positively. A rebuff from Iran, even to a back-channel query, is to be avoided at all costs, various officials agree.
The administration, for example, has been embarrassed by the on-again, off-again possibility of talks with Iran on Iraq, which were authorized by Ms. Rice late last year.
The concern, some say, is that talking to Iran only about Iraq will anger Sunni dissidents in Iraq, reinforcing the Sunni-led insurgency while enhancing the status of Iraqi Shiites, whose strong ties to Iran make Washington uneasy.
On the other hand, the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was said to be eager to enlist Iran in helping to deal with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which are accused of carrying out killings and kidnappings of Sunnis in Iraq.
Some Europeans favor American participation in the European-Iranian talks, at least down the road. Others raise the possibility of informal contacts through nongovernmental organizations or policy institutes.
Incentives and possible sanctions against Iran are to be the focus of negotiations between the United States and the European nations in coming days and weeks.
The United States is resisting the Europeans' desire to increase economic incentives for Iran, because that would involve a lifting of American sanctions on European businesses that helped Iran. At the same time, Russia and China are resisting the idea of seeking a new resolution at the United Nations Security Council that could be seen as clearing the way for sanctions or possible military action against Iran.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting for this article.