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The Austin American-Statesman June 1, 2006

U.S. offer for Iran carries a big 'if'

In policy shift, Bush administration says it will join nuclear talks if Iran stops enriching uranium.

By Ken Herman

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced Wednesday that it would join multinational negotiations with Iran if that country suspends uranium enrichment activities that Western nations suspect are part of a nuclear weapons program.

The move marked a major policy shift; the U.S. government has refused to recognize Iran's government since that country's Islamic revolution 27 years ago. The offer to hold talks could be a first step toward landmark change in U.S.-Iran relations — or a last chance to detour from the path toward sanctions and possible military intervention.

"The president is not going to take any of his options off the table, temporarily or otherwise," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

Iran's official news outlet, the Islamic Republic News Agency, appeared to dismiss the U.S. overture, calling it "a propaganda move."

"Given the insistence by Iranian authorities on continuing uranium enrichment, Rice's comments can be considered a propaganda move," the state-run news agency said. Iran has rejected previous demands that it halt enrichment.

Rice headed to Vienna for meetings today with allies involved in the stalled negotiations with Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had said Tuesday that his government is ready to resume talks with France, Germany and Great Britain. Iran says its nuclear program is aimed only at civilian energy production.

President Bush said Wednesday, "It's very important that we solve this issue diplomatically.

"My decision today says the United States is going to take a leadership position in solving this issue," he said. "And our message to the Iranians is, 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 he has discussed the proposal with French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. move is aimed at shoring up support for U.N. sanctions against Iran if negotiations fail.

A senior administration official said the White House is convinced that China and Russia would support sanctions if the new overture hits a dead end and Iran continues its nuclear activities.

"We'll welcome a very active participation of the United States on this diplomatic effort," Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said. "The more Washington talks about diplomacy and political process, and not something else, the better it is as far as we're concerned."

"I think that certainly it is a welcome move, but I do hope that these direct talk will not have any preconditions," China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, said. But he said security assurances to Iran, which diplomats have said Washington opposes, are a necessary carrot.

Iran recently walked out on negotiations with Britain, France and Germany, the three nations leading the diplomatic efforts over the impasse caused by Iran's development of its nuclear capability.

The White House has since been increasingly pressured by the three European nations to get directly involved in talks. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, welcomed Wednesday's U.S. shift, saying, "Direct U.S. participation would be the strongest and most positive signal of our common wish to reach an agreement with Iran."

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Bush's move "just puts us in the game."

"It doesn't say whether we are going to play," Alterman said.

"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.' "

The Bush administration talked in terms of what White House spokesman Tony Snow called "carrots for good behavior, and there will be sticks for bad behavior" for Iran.

Rice said the positive reinforcements could include economic, educational and cultural incentives, while the sticks could involve "great cost," including "international isolation and progressively stronger political and economic sanctions."

Rice slalomed around questions about possible opposition by Russia and China, which depend on Iran for energy resources, to U.N. sanctions against Iran.

"We've obviously had extensive discussions with all of our partners who've been trying to find a resolution of this nuclear issue," she said, adding that "good progress" has been made concerning "potential sanctions should Iran not be willing to act in good faith."

Rice rejected the notion that the offer on talks as a step toward full diplomatic relations with Iran.

"This is not a grand bargain," the secretary of state warned. She said Bush wants "a positive relationship" with Iran but believes that many issues separate the two nations, such as its support for some terrorist groups and involvement in the violence in Iraq. It is also, she said, "undercutting the restoration of full sovereignty in Lebanon."

"Iran can and should be a responsible state, not the leading state sponsor of terror," Rice said.

She branded Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons as "a direct threat to the entire international community, including to the United States and to the Persian Gulf region."

Copyright 2006, Cox Texas Newspapers, L.P.