U.S. now ready for nuclear talks with IranWASHINGTON The Bush administration said Wednesday that the United States would join Europeans in talks with Iran over its nuclear program, but only if Tehran first suspended its uranium activities, which are thought to be a cover for developing nuclear arms.
The declaration, by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was a shift away from decades of refusal to hold broad, direct talks with Iran. But Iran has long said it would not agree to preconditions, and the administration's offer appeared to be aimed as much at placating American allies as at wooing Iran.
Rice announced the shift on the eve of talks in Vienna with European, Russian and Chinese envoys aimed at resuscitating a faltering American-led effort to forge a common front against Iran's nuclear program. The American goal is to present Iran with a package of economic and political benefits if it ends its uranium activities, and a threat of sanctions if it does not.
The shift followed a searching, two-month debate and an accelerating campaign by European leaders to get President Bush to make a dramatic gesture to energize the stalled European-led nuclear talks with Iran, American officials said.
Skepticism from Vice President Dick Cheney and others who have opposed concessions to Iran was overcome, the officials said, when it was realized that refusal to move toward the European view would mean that the administration would be blamed for failing to do its utmost to defuse the crisis, making it harder to rally world opinion against Iran.
Still, American and European officials said, Russian and Chinese support for the package was not yet guaranteed.
"The United States is willing to exert strong leadership to give diplomacy its very best chance to succeed," Rice said before leaving for Vienna. She added that "the United States will come to the table" with its European partners "and meet with Iran's representative" if Iran met the stated conditions.
It was not clear whether the American offer would prompt any change in Iran's longstanding opposition to preconditions. An official Iranian news agency initially labeled it a "propaganda move."
Rice said the American shift, however qualified, removed "the last excuse" for Iran to refuse to cooperate. President Bush later described the new approach as one that put the United States into "a leadership position in solving this issue."
"Our message to the Iranians is that, one, you won't have a weapon, and two, that you must verifiably suspend any programs, at which point we will come to the negotiating table to work on a way forward," Bush said at the White House.
The United States conveyed its readiness to meet through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, and in a call to Iran's United Nations ambassador, Javad Zarif, by the American ambassador, John Bolton, offering Zarif an advance copy of Rice's announcement.
Outside of Iran, Rice's announcement brought nearly universal praise, especially in Europe, though Russia and China seemed guarded about the conditions the United States attached to its offer.
A senior State Department official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution, said President Bush had briefed President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the details. "We have a little bit more negotiating to do," the official said. "We just have to make sure that everybody's on board. We think the Russians will be."
The administration has not entirely frozen Iran out of contact in recent years, despite Bush's labeling it, along with Iraq and North Korea, part of an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union Message in early 2002.
The United States had contact with Iranian officials during the war in Afghanistan and the early stages of the war with Iraq. Iraq and Afghanistan are neighbors of Iran, and Iran has long wielded influence over their internal affairs.
American talks with Iran were cut off in mid-2003 after the United States charged Iran with involvement in the bombing of civilians in Saudi Arabia. But there were talks at the end of that year and the beginning of 2004 to speed American relief to Iran after the earthquake in Bam.
In addition, last year Rice announced that the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, would be authorized to talk with Iranian officials about the situation in Iraq, including infiltration of insurgents and aid to Shiite militias. But these talks have not taken place.
With Washington's new position now public, the European, Russian, Chinese and American negotiators are to focus on details of the incentives and threats of punishment. The United States has quietly made one significant concession to the Russians on this score, by allowing language that would remove any threat of force from the document being discussed.
In addition, the United States has agreed to a Russian and Chinese demand to require that even if the Security Council threatens sanctions, the sanctions would not be imposed without another Council vote.
What all these face-saving arrangements leave unstated, however, is that the United States appears determined to enlist other countries to impose economic penalties, like a crackdown on bank activity in Iran, if the Council fails to act in the face of further Iranian defiance.
Getting worldwide support for a tough policy toward Iran has been hard because Iran, which moved last summer to resume uranium enrichment, is technically correct in saying that this activity, defined by Iran as peaceful in nature, is allowed under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty that it signed.
The West maintains that because Iran has concealed many of its activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency, it has forfeited its right to enrich uranium.
A package of incentives is to be presented Thursday in Vienna, if American plans are fulfilled.
The threat of sanctions, as envisioned by the United States, Britain and France, is to take the form of a commitment to a resolution to be adopted by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which implies penalties if Iran refuses to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Russia and China are opposed to invoking Chapter VII but may relent if they are persuaded by American assurances that sanctions would not be adopted without another vote of the Council.
North Korea Project Halted
A project to build two nuclear power plants for North Korea in exchange for its agreement to allow United Nations inspections of atomic sites was formally ended yesterday by the United States, Japan, South Korea and European Union. The contractor, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, was formed in 1995 to build two light-water reactors, from which it is difficult to extract weapons-grade plutonium, but the Bush administration never fully supported it.
Warren Hoge contributed reporting from the United Nations for this article, and David E. Sanger from Washington.