Europeans Trying to Grease Wheels for U.S. Talks With Iran

Javier Solana, a senior European Union official who has been trying to restart talks between the United States and Iran regarding Tehran's uranium enrichment, is to meet with Iran's nuclear negotiator this week.
Javier Solana, a senior European Union official who has been trying to restart talks between the United States and Iran regarding Tehran's uranium enrichment, is to meet with Iran's nuclear negotiator this week. (By Thierry Charlier -- Associated Press)

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By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

NEW YORK, Sept. 17 -- European efforts to get Iran and the United States around the same negotiating table are at an advanced yet sensitive stage, with a small number of remaining differences to be tackled this week when world leaders gather at the United Nations, according to several American, Iranian and European officials involved.

President Bush plans to make Iran a centerpiece of his speech Tuesday before the U.N. General Assembly, explaining to the annual meeting of presidents and prime ministers why he regards the Tehran government as a grave threat yet is willing to support negotiations to ease those concerns.

For four years, Bush has sought, without success, to roll back an Iranian nuclear energy program that perhaps could be diverted for bombmaking. While many of his allies share suspicions of a secret Iranian effort, they have also been wary of supporting a U.S. president who has invaded two countries in the past five years and who has said that "all options are on the table" for Iran.

At last year's U.N. gathering, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent several days trying to persuade key allies to move the Iran issue into the U.N. Security Council, where the United States has more leverage to press for sanctions. They were unsuccessful then, but six months later, after additional diplomacy and poor cooperation from Iran, the issue was put on the council's agenda. Now, the president and his top diplomat will meet with allies again -- this time to discuss prospects for talks as well as options if those do not materialize.

"We want this to happen, we want negotiations," a senior administration official said Sunday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But we're not there yet."

Rice dined here Sunday evening with Javier Solana, the senior European Union official who has been trying to broker talks between Tehran and the Bush administration. Solana will meet with Iran's nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, later in the week.

Officials who have been briefed on Solana's efforts said he is waiting for Larijani to deliver a firm commitment from his government to halt its uranium enrichment program. Larijani has suggested a temporary suspension, but it is unclear whether he can get Iran's various political factions to agree to that approach. If a deal is reached, U.S. diplomats will join group talks with European powers, Russia, China and Iran to discuss Tehran's energy needs and the future of its nuclear program.

Several administration officials expressed skepticism, however, that Larijani would be able to secure that commitment. They said the administration has not made preparations for talks, such as formalizing a negotiating team or outlining guiding principles for discussion. If Iran fails to put its nuclear program on ice, even temporarily, the administration will continue to lobby allies to impose economic sanctions.

"I have made it clear to the Iranian regime that we will sit down with the Iranians once they verifiably suspend their enrichment program," Bush said at a news conference Thursday. But, he said, "they need to understand we're firm in our commitment and that if they try to drag their feet or, you know, get us to look the other way, then we won't do that."

Iranian officials are seeking assurances of their own.

Through Solana and other mediators, they have said it would be hard for them to sit down with a U.S. administration that is seen as threatening the Iranian leadership. Two Bush administration officials and several European negotiators said the security issue has been a major sticking point for Iran but that efforts to resolve it are serious.

"Sitting down with Washington at the same table," said one European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "is the best guarantee. Both sides sitting down together is extraordinary in itself."

Officials noted that Bush refrained last week from characterizing Iran as a "grave threat," as he did last month. But he ruled out the possibility of a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The Iranian leader is scheduled to address the United Nations on Tuesday, hours after Bush.

Tuesday evening, Rice will dine with the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and Italy to discuss Iran.

France, Britain and Germany have committed to push for sanctions against Iran if it does not halt its uranium enrichment program, but the Europeans are also eager to find a route to negotiations and have been holding low-level talks with the Iranians for months.

In an effort to avoid a standoff over whether the United States or Iran will make the next move toward talks, diplomats said it is possible that European foreign ministers will meet with Larijani during the week in New York, effectively kicking off negotiations, followed by an Iranian suspension of its nuclear program and then U.S. participation.

Other E.U. members have strongly supported talks, rather than punitive measures, noting that Iran's technical progress on its nuclear program has been marginal, while its position as a major oil exporter gives Tehran significant leverage to batter their economies.

Russia, China, Japan, India and Italy -- influential countries with billions of dollars of investments in Iran's oil and gas industry -- have been particularly reluctant to back sanctions.

But all parties, including Russia and China -- two of Iran's closest economic partners -- have publicly said that Tehran must suspend its nuclear program for talks to begin.

Iran quit negotiations with the Europeans a year ago and restarted a uranium program that it insists is designed to produce only nuclear energy. In an effort to coax Iran back to the negotiating table, Rice announced in May that the United States will participate in resumed talks if Iran again suspends uranium enrichment.

Iran's nuclear program began in 1987 in secret and is under investigation by U.N. nuclear inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Inspectors have not found proof of a weapons program but have said they are unable -- mostly because of a lack of Iranian cooperation -- to confirm that the program is exclusively peaceful.

Iran this year produced trace amounts of low-enriched uranium, suitable only for an energy program, and has said it has no intention of producing highly enriched uranium. U.S. intelligence estimates report that Iran is as much as a decade away from being able to produce the amount and quality of highly enriched uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapon.

Staff writers Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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