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U.S. shifts policy about talks with Iran
McClatchy Newspapers


June 01, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unveiled a significant shift Wednesday in the United States' stance on Iran, saying Washington would join its European allies in direct talks with Tehran if Iran suspends its efforts to build nuclear arms.

President Bush said he made the decision to try to jump-start progress on a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear dilemma after talks in recent days with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain, whose fitful negotiations with Tehran since 2003 have failed to produce an accord.




"I believe it's very important that we solve this issue diplomatically, and my decision today says that the United States is going to take a leadership position in solving this issue," Bush told reporters, visiting Rwandan President Paul Kagame by his side in the Oval Office.

In a separate session with journalists, Rice repeatedly denied that the U.S. turnabout in tactics is a concession to Tehran, or that it indicates a willingness to discuss broader issues such as Iraq or Iran's alleged sponsorship of terrorism in Lebanon and elsewhere.

"We will continue to have our differences with the Iranian regime on the vast number of issues that are before us, but it is our view that a diplomatic solution to the nuclear program is necessary," Rice said. "This is not a bilateral negotiation between the United States and Iran on the whole host of issues that would lead to broader relations between Iran and the United States."

White House press secretary Tony Snow, though, suggested that initial negotiations on Iran's nuclear program could lead to more far-reaching discussions.

"If you build a basis for confidence and trust, I think it's going to be easier to deal with the other issues in the future," Snow said.

The requirement that Iran suspend its bid to develop nuclear weapons, Snow said, is not a U.S. condition, but rather one set by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog.

IRNA, the official Iranian news agency, dismissed the U.S. offer as "a propaganda move." It quoted an Iranian lawmaker, Kazem Jalali, as saying, "The U.S. offer for talks can be considered positive, but the precondition set by the U.S. (of suspending Iran's nuclear program) is not appropriate."

Jalali added, "The Islamic Republic has announced repeatedly that suspension of uranium enrichment is not in Iran's agenda."

Iran's clandestine nuclear program was first revealed in 2002. It suspended efforts at developing enriched uranium in 2004 and agreed to inspections by the IAEA, but then resumed nuclear activities in January after failed talks with France, Germany and Britain.

Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, insists that it is only developing nuclear power for peaceful, civilian energy supply.

The U.N. Security Council is weighing punitive steps against Iran, but China and Russia have resisted imposing the draconian economic sanctions sought by Bush and the European powers.

Rice declined twice Wednesday to answer directly reporters asking whether China and Russia had accepted sanctions in exchange for U.S. agreement to join the talks.

"You can be sure that our friends and our partners understand the importance of this step and the importance that the Iranians must now see of making a choice and making that choice clearly," she said.

Snow said the United States, its European allies, China and Russia "were still finalizing both a series of inducements and punishments to Iran if it fails" to heed the call to suspend its nuclear program.

"In many ways, this represents the triumph of about 15 months of very hard diplomacy on the part of the president," Snow said.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, gave Bush a backhanded compliment for making the diplomatic overture.

"The Bush administration's apparent new willingness to work closely with our allies and more directly engage the Iranian government is a long overdue step forward in addressing the challenge of Iran's nuclear pursuits," Reid said.

Khalid Al-Rodhan, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the U.S. offer opens a new but uncertain avenue for resolving the nuclear dispute.

"This is a significant development, but it depends on how Iran reacts _ and how the United States reacts to Iran's reaction," he said. "In the past, trying to predict what Iran's government would do has been very difficult. At this point, there are too many players in Iran's government to prejudge its final policy."


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