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U.S., Allies May Have to Wait Out Iran Elections

Earlier Answer Preferred on Effort to Dissuade Tehran of Nuclear Intentions

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page A14

The United States and Europe are reluctantly prepared to wait until after Iran's presidential election in June and the formation of a new government for a final answer to the new joint effort to get Tehran to abandon any ambition to develop a nuclear weapon, according to U.S. and European officials.

Their goal is to get Iran to respond sooner to the new negotiating position announced yesterday, which includes economic carrots as well as punitive sticks if Iran balks. But U.S. and European officials have also concluded that Tehran's current government is a lame duck with diminishing leverage, and any agreement it might make may not endure after the election that will bring in a new government.

"Any durable agreement will need support from the government beyond June," a European official said. Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, a reformer, will leave office after his two terms expire this summer, and many political analysts in Tehran believe a conservative is likely to win.

After the election of a new president, the United States and the European allies negotiating with Iran -- Britain, France and Germany -- will expect a swift decision from the new government, the sources said.

"What we want to do is two things: keep Iran's [nuclear energy] program as frozen as it is now and shore up the U.S.-European position that puts us in place for after the June election. But choices will then have to be made. We'll have no patience after that for protracted negotiations," a senior U.S. official said.

Iran yesterday dismissed as "ludicrous" new economic incentives to get it to abandon any ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced yesterday that Washington would back a European initiative offering Iran eventual membership in the World Trade Organization and access to spare parts for its aging civilian passenger jets as part of a permanent nuclear disarmament deal.

"What is being suggested is very much insignificant," said Iranian negotiator Sirus Naseri in Vienna. "In fact, it is too insignificant to comment about."

He said Tehran will not give up the right to its own nuclear fuel, a process that is legal under the Non-Proliferation Treaty but one that the United States fears Iran could subvert for military purposes. "Now that we can produce our own nuclear fuel, to give it up and rely on others to provide it would simply be ludicrous. Would the U.S. do it? Or France, Germany, Britain or the Netherlands?" Naseri said to Reuters news agency.

U.S. and European officials say Iran is just posturing -- and playing for time. They said the transatlantic allies are not discouraged by the initial reaction, particularly because the United States and Europe are now in a stronger position to put pressure on Tehran.

"The key here was to establish with our European allies a common agenda, a common approach to the issue of getting the Iranians to live up to the international obligations which they have undertaken," Rice told reporters. "There is very often too much talk about what the United States needs to do or what the European Union needs to do. We can now return the focus to what the Iranians need to do."

Rice said the Bush administration does not have a specific timetable or time limit in mind. "Obviously, these are negotiations. . . . This has been going on for some time. And I would think that if the Iranians are going to demonstrate that they are prepared to live up to their obligations that they would want to do that sooner rather than later."

Yet U.S. and European officials have discussed the implications of the political transition expected in Iran this year, both because the reform movement is in disarray and because conservatives loyal to Grand Leader Ali Khamenei are determined to wrest back the presidency, after winning back the majority in parliament last year.

"We are going to press as much as we can, but we are realistic about waiting," the European official said.

The Bush administration was out in full force yesterday giving interviews and briefings to sell its new position, which reflects a shift from years of resisting pressure to offer what could be perceived as rewards for disarmament or to engage with Iran even indirectly.

"I look forward to working with our European friends to make it abundantly clear to the Iranian regime that the free world will not tolerate them having a nuclear weapon," Bush said in Shreveport, La.

In an interview with Fox News, Vice President Cheney pointed out consequences if Iran fails to surrender control over the uranium enrichment process that can fuel nuclear reactors for energy but could also be used for weapons development.

"If the Iranians don't live up to their obligations and their international commitments to forgo a nuclear program, then obviously we'll have to take stronger action," Cheney said. As part of the new agreement, the three European allies have agreed to support a U.S. request to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council if talks break down.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company