Major Powers Discuss Iran Strategy

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

After two years of faltering diplomatic efforts, the United States and the world's other major powers met yesterday to discuss new inducements to lure Iran to the negotiating table for talks on its disputed nuclear program, according to officials involved in the initiative.

The meeting here among representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States focused on possible new overtures, such as international help with Iran's growing narcotics crisis, deals on energy field exploitation and support for security talks among the oil-rich Persian Gulf nations, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because diplomacy is ongoing. The goal of the new economic and security incentives is to persuade Iran to finally suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy and the production of deadly weapons.

The Bush administration is prepared to consider new outreach but is hesitant to go too far, mainly out of concern that Tehran will conclude that delays help it win concessions from the international community. "These are all European ideas, and the U.S. took a very conservative stance," a senior State Department official said. One of the proposals rejected outright was that the United States be party to security guarantees for Iran, an official in the talks said.

Also under discussion, said officials present at the talks, was how to circumvent loyalists to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have rejected all international overtures, and reach out to officials close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who have indicated a willingness to negotiate.

European representatives proposed many of the ideas when the Bush administration agreed in 2006 to join a European initiative to reach out to Iran with both carrots and sticks. Washington originally rebuffed most of the ideas, but with less than a year left to achieve one of its top foreign policy objectives, the Bush administration is prepared to explore such options to "reinvigorate" the deadlocked effort, the U.S. official said.

The six powers hope to wrap up this week a U.N. resolution imposing new sanctions on Tehran, the sources said. At yesterday's meeting, the six nations also drafted a communique to be released when the resolution is passed that will "reaffirm" a "keen interest" in negotiations with Iran, the U.S. official said.

"You have to strengthen all the instruments you have, both sanctions and incentives," a European diplomat said. "The idea with the third resolution is to increase sanctions, but incentives are part of the philosophy."

But the new sanctions resolution -- a sequel to those in December 2006 and March 2007 that targeted Iranian banks, senior officials and military industries -- faces an uphill battle. The draft is guaranteed passage because it has the support of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, but it does not have the unanimity of previous resolutions, which won approval from all 15 council members.

The six powers that met in Washington yesterday are concerned that any dissent on the Security Council would lead Iran to believe it has begun to crack international resolve, officials present at the talks said.

"That's why it should not be a sweeter package, but a reasonable one that makes them understand it's the best thing to get to the negotiating table. That's what it's about," said a second European diplomat party to the talks. "Does it make them think we're running after them? That's not what it's about."

Four of the non-permanent Security Council members -- South Africa, Libya, Indonesia and Vietnam -- have expressed reservations about additional sanctions on Iran. The permanent members and Germany plan to spend the week pressing them to accede, possibly changing the resolution to reflect their concerns. The resolution has already been significantly weakened -- it merely calls for vigilance and makes most punitive measures voluntary -- compared with the original U.S.-backed draft last fall.

The goal of the six powers is to get a vote by Friday, before Russia takes over from Panama as president of the Security Council. Moscow, which has important trade ties with Iran and built its first nuclear reactor, does not want to oversee the vote, officials said.

The timing of the carrot-and-stick diplomacy is pegged to Iran's March 14 parliamentary elections, diplomats said. The goal is to have the U.N. resolution in place before the vote, with new overtures to Tehran agreed upon among the six powers within six weeks to two months after the vote.


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