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The Boston Globe June 1, 2006

US dangles an olive branch to Iran

Offers to join talks if Tehran ends its uranium enrichment

By Bryan Bender

WASHINGTON -- The United States offered yesterday to join diplomatic talks between the European Union and Iran if the hard-line regime in Tehran agrees to halt its enrichment of uranium, signaling a major shift in strategy after seeking to isolate the Iranian government for the past 25 years.

The overture suggested that the Bush administration is willing to pursue a new relationship with the Islamic state -- including helping it develop a civilian nuclear power industry -- if it agrees to forgo a nuclear arsenal.

``To underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance the prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our [European] colleagues and meet with Iran's representative," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the State Department.

The Iranian government did not respond immediately to Rice's offer. But the official Iranian news agency called the announcement ``a propaganda move," and said, ``Iran only accepts proposals and conditions that meet the interests of the nation and the country. Halting enrichment definitely doesn't meet such interests."

The initiative could undermine one of Iran's key complaints: that the Americans were unwilling to negotiate directly. If Iran still declines to make concessions on its nuclear program despite such talks, it could end up facing a more united international community that is more willing to impose tough sanctions.

``It is a significant development in terms of getting the blame off the American government and onto the Iranian government," said John Pike , a defense specialist at GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank in Alexandria, Va. ``If they had not done this everyone would say [to the United States that] `you wouldn't even talk to them.' "

But some American analysts said Rice's initiative could help break the stalemate over Iran's nuclear program and ultimately open a path toward conciliation or at least a working relationship with Iran after decades of wrangling.

Rice expressed hope the offer would infuse ``new energy" into diplomatic efforts, adding that the United States ultimately seeks ``a positive relationship between the American people and the people of Iran -- a beneficial relationship of increased contacts in education and cultural exchange, in sports and travel, in trade and in investment."

In an interview with CNN, however, she said the conditional offer was not a ``grand bargain." She stressed that Washington was not offering formal diplomatic ties with Iran, which have been severed since 1979 when Islamic revolutionaries took over the US Embassy and held dozens of American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Yesterday's offer was relayed to the Iranian government by Switzerland.

More recently, President Bush in 2002 labeled Iran one of the three ``axis of evil" governments. In addition, it remains on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism and is accused of fomenting instability in neighboring Iraq.

The diplomatic gambit -- approved yesterday by Bush after phone calls with foreign leaders -- came only after obtaining quiet agreement from Russia and China to collectively seek sanctions against Iran if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declines to stop the enrichment activities, according to administration officials. Both countries wield vetoes in the United Nations Security Council, the body the United States has vowed to use to try to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program.

``The US and the Europeans and the Russians have been talking for some time about carrots and sticks," said Patrick Clawson , an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ``There seems to be an agreement on both of those measures. They didn't want to announce this unless they had agreement on what to do next."

Indeed, when asked about talks with the Russians and Chinese, Rice told reporters that all parties agreed that there would be ``a set of penalties or a set of potential sanctions should Iran not be willing to act in good faith."

Bush described the effort as ``robust diplomacy," and told reporters that ``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."

The US overture quickly won praise from the international community and proliferation specialists. France, Germany, and Britain have held talks with Iran over its nuclear program over the past 18 months, but the United States has declined to participate until now.

``It is just in time," said David Albright , president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. ``I was getting a little discouraged."

He said Rice's offer appeared to contain three main components: the offer of direct talks in return for a halt to enrichment efforts; the acknowledg ment that Iran has a right to nuclear energy; and the commitment by the United States to support a series of economic and trade incentives if Iran agrees to the conditions.

However, analysts held few illusions that the hard-line government would react positively to the overture. ``I just don't think it is going to happen yet," said Clawson. ``I think we are going to have to scare the bejeezuz out of the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ] before he decides this is where he has to go."

Besides, the United States and Iran -- even if they can come to some sort of agreement over the nuclear program -- have a variety of other differences that will be extremely difficult to settle, officials pointed out.

Rice yesterday laid out some of them.

``The Iranian government supports terror. It is involved in violence in Iraq, and it is undercutting the restoration of full sovereignty in Lebanon," she said. ``These policies are out of step with the international community and are barriers to a positive relationship between the Iranian people and the people of the United States as well as with the rest of the world."

She added: ``Nobody is confused about the nature of this regime. But the president made very clear that we are going to do everything that we can to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem."


Copyright 2006, The New York Times Company