By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
The Bush administration will send a senior envoy this weekend to international talks with Iran about its nuclear program in what U.S. officials described as a "one-time deal" designed to demonstrate a serious desire to negotiate a solution to the impasse over Tehran's ambitions.
In a significant departure from long-standing policy, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns will join a scheduled meeting in Geneva between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and top Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, according to a senior State Department official.
Burns, State's third-ranking official, will not negotiate with the Iranians nor hold separate meetings, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the decision had not yet been announced. Instead, Burns will advance the White House's position that serious negotiations can begin only after Iran suspends uranium enrichment.
Administration officials have long insisted that U.S. representatives would not join even preliminary discussions with Tehran until it stops enriching uranium -- a distinction that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has called counterproductive.
In June, when Solana traveled to Tehran to present a sweetened offer to Iran to negotiate, the United States pointedly did not join other members of the international coalition in sending a senior official to the meeting. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at the time that no U.S. representative would attend unless "Iran suddenly has a change of tune and says that they will meet the demands of the international community, which are expressed in U.N. Security Council resolutions."
European officials hailed the news that Burns would come to Geneva as a breakthrough, one that sends a clear message to Iran that the international community is interested in negotiating a solution to the nuclear impasse. "It is a very interesting and important sign by the United States," one senior European official said last night.
Obama campaign officials had said that one of the first steps he would take as president would be to end the ban on U.S. officials accompanying Solana.
Solana has proposed that before negotiations begin, the two sides have a six-week "freeze for freeze," under which Iran does not add to its nuclear program and the United States and its allies -- Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- do not seek more international sanctions. During this period, the two sides would hash out the contours of further negotiations. But once serious talks begin, Iran would have to halt uranium enrichment.
The State Department official said Burns would not participate in further discussions during the freeze-for-freeze period. "This is a one-time deal," he said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday that Jalili and Solana will discuss a "timetable" for future negotiations to break the deadlock in the nuclear crisis. "In these talks, the framework of talks and timetable of talks" will be discussed, he said on state television.
The group of six nations seeking to negotiate with Iran offered in 2006 to broaden economic and political ties if Iran halted its nuclear work, but Iran rejected that gesture and has rapidly expanded its program. In June, the six countries augmented their offer, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even signing a joint letter to the Iranian foreign minister offering the new deal.
This month, Iran gave a formal response to the offer, and U.S. and European officials described it as oblique. The letter from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was addressed to Rice -- along with the other ministers -- which is another reason U.S. officials said it was important for Burns to accompany Solana this weekend.