The Bush administration is now seeking guarantees from Europe that allies will back punitive measures against Iran if diplomatic talks do not result in agreement by the Islamic republic to permanently abandon any ambitions of developing a nuclear weapon, according to U.S. and European officials.
As it moves into a crucial phase of deliberations on Iran, Washington wants any agreement on a new package of incentives for Tehran to include an understanding on a general timeline, so that Iran cannot drag out negotiations for several months, as it did on a temporary agreement last year.
The administration faces serious skepticism inside its own ranks about how far to go with Europe in offering incentives to Iran, for fear the Europeans will not agree to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council if the diplomatic effort does not produce results fairly quickly, according to U.S. officials.
In his first public comment on joining the European effort, President Bush said yesterday that the United States wants to work with Europe to "help make sure the process goes forward." He said he was "most appreciative" that European allies agreed with him in talks last week that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. "To me, that is a very -- a positive start for achieving our common objective," he told reporters after a visit to CIA headquarters.
Bush also met yesterday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to review her talks in London on Tuesday about the specifics of a joint U.S.-Europe overture to Iran, amidst indications that a final decision is near. The proposed incentives include agreement to allow Iran to eventually apply for membership in the World Trade Organization, and the right to buy badly needed spare parts for its aging fleet of passenger aircraft.
"Within the next couple of weeks, we'll be able to bring this together with the Europeans," said a senior State Department official, speaking anonymously because of the ongoing diplomacy. "We're working this. . . . We still have a bit more talking to do -- with them and among ourselves."
The skepticism comes from several parties to the administration deliberations, but particularly from Vice President Cheney's office, the Pentagon and leading Republicans in Congress, officials said. They have expressed concern that the United States may keep its half of the bargain -- pursuing the diplomatic track with Iran -- only to see the Europeans not follow through with tough measures if talks fail, U.S. and European sources said.
"The fear is that there'll be a windup but no pitch," a congressional source said. "Whatever support we're getting from Europe may be soft and, while the rhetoric is good, there won't be any follow-through. They'll speak all the right words, but at the end of the day the only thing they'd do is hold our coat and they won't be prepared to do what is necessary."
A senior administration official added: "One range of possibilities is that the bottom falls out."
The reservations are also based on the assumption by some that Iran, in the end, will not sign a permanent agreement that includes tough and unrestricted verification measures. Reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna suggested yesterday that Iran has begun construction of an underground tunnel system, possibly as part of an underground facility for a nuclear arms program.
Rice said yesterday that there is "considerable concern" about "a number of Iranian activities that are starting . . . to emerge." After meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller, Rice said Tehran faces a "strategic choice": convince the world it is not trying to build a nuclear weapon; or face referral to the Security Council for possible action, which can range from public admonishment to sanctions.
"The United States has always said the Security Council referral is really, in a sense, mandated . . . if we cannot get satisfaction about Iranian activities," she told reporters. "Thus far, the Iranians have shown no indication that they are interested in taking that deal."
A senior European official described the transatlantic talks as a "minuet," and some European officials have expressed concern that Washington may not go as far as they had hoped in developing an incentive package for Iran.
European officials have expressed concern that administration skeptics, who disagree deeply with any form of direct or indirect engagement with Tehran's clerical government, could derail the delicate effort -- the first time in decades that the United States and Europe have agreed to try to craft a common strategy in dealing with Iran.
Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.