The Bush administration is close to a decision to join Europe in offering incentives to Iran -- possibly including eventual membership in the World Trade Organization -- in exchange for Tehran's formal agreement to surrender any plans to develop a nuclear weapon, according to senior U.S. officials.
The day after returning from Europe, President Bush met Friday afternoon with the principal members of his foreign policy team to discuss requests made by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac in particular. More discussions are expected this week, but the White House wants to move quickly to finalize a list of incentives to offer Tehran as part of European talks with Iran, officials said.
The new willingness to engage, even if indirectly, marks a significant change from a position that Iran deserved no rewards for actions it is legally bound to take under terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Bush's talks last week convinced him that a united front -- in offering carrots now and a stick later if Iran does not comply -- would be more effective, U.S. and European officials say.
"The reason we're comfortable considering this tactically is because strategically, when the president was in Europe, he found them solid on the big issue: that Iran can't have a nuclear weapon. Having found them firm on the strategic issue, he's more willing to consider the tactical aspects with the Europeans -- including how do we work with them and what can the Europeans offer that we would be part of it," said a senior State Department official speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy.
The White House discussions have importance on several levels. During Bush's first term, the administration was deeply divided over what to do about Iran, effectively leaving the White House without a formal policy. The debate ranged from adopting the Iraq model of promoting government change to the North Korean model of containing a government and creating incentives to use in diplomatic talks on disarmament.
Now, the administration appears willing, at least in the short term, to hold out the prospect of tentative engagement with Iran down the road to get the Islamic republic to cooperate in limiting its nuclear energy program -- and ensuring it is not subverted for military use.
The White House meeting also reflects an interest in demonstrating to the Europeans that the U.S. effort to heal the transatlantic rift extends beyond tone to substance -- over the issue that most urgently and widely divides the allies.
"The meetings in Europe were really good, not just atmospherics," said a second senior administration official who requested anonymity. "We are past the point of grousing about the process or each other and we're now grappling with the issues: how to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and how to deal with its behavior."
Iran insists its nuclear program is aimed only at producing energy. But the United States worries that Tehran's efforts are a cover for a nuclear weapons program. The Washington Post reported yesterday that international investigators found evidence in 1987 that Iran was offered plans for a nuclear weapons program, but Iranian officials said they did not follow through on buying the equipment needed to build the core of a bomb.
The Europeans have argued for years that Iran was unlikely to commit to a permanent agreement on its nuclear technology without direct or indirect U.S. involvement, especially because the United States has thousands of troops deployed in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan as well as warships and warplanes on other frontiers.
U.S. resistance to proposals by Britain, France and Germany, which are leading the disarmament talks with Iran, proved to be counterproductive, U.S. and European officials said, because they often made the United States, rather than Iran, appear to be the odd man out diplomatically.
In talks after Bush's reelection late last year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pressed Bush to join or endorse the European approach, according to U.S. and European sources.
"He said, 'Even if you stand apart, take an approach that is seen as reinforcing what we're doing, give the impression that you're empowering us,' " said another U.S. official familiar with the talks.
The biggest selling point, he added, was the argument that charting a common course would help the United States: If talks with Iran fail, Washington would not be seen as the outside player that ruined the effort. There would also then be more options to stand together in punitive steps against Iran, including going to the U.N. Security Council -- a move the United States has long sought.